Saturday, December 27, 2014


Petrified Time

This past fall I read Petrified Time by Yannis Ritsos, translated by Martin McKinsey and Scott King, published in 2014 by Red Dragonfly Press. This is one of the strongest translations of Ritsos that I've read, and one of the books of poems published this past year that spoke to me most powerfully. (The book includes the original Greek along with the English translations.)

Yannis Ritsos spent periods of his life on various prison islands in Greece for his left-wing political activites, imprisoned for left-wing political activities along with many other members of the left-wing resistance. The poems in Petrified Time come from a period of roughly four years of imprisonment in the late 1940's and early 1950's, including a year in the particularly brutal prison on Makronisos. The poems evoke a deeply rooted endurance, a love and embrace of the hearts and lives of the vast majority of the people of the world, in quiet stubborn defiance of all efforts to crush the fires of life.

From the poem "Things We Know":

A sun of stone went with us
scorching the desert wind and thorns.
The afternoon hung from the sea's selvage
like a bare yellow bulb in some deep forest of memory.

We had no time for such things -- but even so
now and then we'd look up, and there on our blankets
with the dirt, the oil stains and the olive pits
a few willow leaves, a few pine needles remained. [...]

[...] Yet we knew that off at the great crossroads
was a city lit by a thousand colored lights
where people greet you with the simple nod of the forehead --
we recognize them by their hands
by the way they cut their bread
by the shadows they cast on the dinner table
as every voice grows sleepy in their eyes
and a lonely star makes a cross on their pillow.

We know them by the strife that furrows their brow
but more than that -- when the night sky deepens overhead
we know them by their poised, conspiratorial manner
as they slip their heart like an illegal leaflet
under the world's closed door.

Much of the poetry of Yannis Ritsos has been translated into English during the past half century; too often, translators blur or miss entirely the political weight his poems carry. (I've written about Ritsos previously in this blog, here.) Ritsos was a Communist, and remained one to the end of his life; he remained fully committed to the promise (not yet realized) of remaking the world in the name and interests of the billions of us who daily make and build the world with our hands and feet and minds and voices and hearts. One of the things I especially like about McKinsey and King's translation of Petrified Time is that the political intent of the poems if not obscured overlooked.

Comrades, they forced us to remain silent.
We had no chance to give voice to our song.
As usual, the afternoon fills with dust,
dust from the traffic of mothers in black dresses
returning from Averoff Prison or Hadzikosta Hospital
or the Department of Transfers,
grieving mothers in black dresses,
with their hearts wrapped in handkerchiefs
like crusts of dry bread, bread so hard Death can't chew it.

Comrades, they are forcing us to remain silent.
They are forcing away our sun.
They don't want us to give voice to our song --
the one that begins simply, with strength and bitterness:
Workers of the world, unite!

At night, when an illicit moon rises above the horizon without a word,
The shadow from a gigantic crutch is etched onto the rocks of Makronisos.
"We could make this crutch into a ladder,"
Vangelis suggests, leaning toward Petros' ear,
as if giving voice to the first line of our future song.

Comrades, it's getting late. It's very late.
We must give voice to our song.

(From the poem "Duty".)

In the daily struggle of living in the world, hope and fatigue come and go. Some days it's a little easier to face the first morning light than other days; some evenings the gathering dark weighs heavier than other nights. In his poems Ritsos and the others imprisoned with him persist and endure, but at no time is he fully outside of the experience. During the days and nights on an island of rock and wind and relentless sun, amid tents sloping toward the sea, surrounded by arms soldiers and barbwire, at no time does he in any way soften or romanticize what is hard and difficult and oppressive.

A crumb of death in our pockets -- we go unshaven.
Where is there a stalk of wheat to bend on its knees to heaven?

Night is slow to fall. The shadows can't hide the hardness of the rock.
The dead man's canteen is swallowed up in the sand.
The moon anchored on another shore,
rocked to and fro by the calm's little finger.
But what shore? and what calm?

Our thirst was great
as we sweated all day at the stone.
Beneath our thirst
lay the roots of the world.

(From the poem "The Roots of the World".)

This is a book of poems about remaining alive and thriving in spite of crushing work and crushing monotony. This is a book of poems about continuing to seek possibilities when none offer themselves, or when possibility itself seems to be held incommunicado behind arms guard and barbwire. Yannis Ritsos published over a hundred books during his lifetime -- poetry, essays, drama, autobiography, translations of other poets into Greek. Certain images recur throughout the whole body of his work, in perpetual variation -- sun and sea and stone and wind, moon and movements in the night, long days and nights of watching and waiting and making ready. Behind the ever-present imagery are the years on the prison isles, the sea viewed through barbwire, the sun on the bare backs of forced labor, a group of prisoners taken away to be shot.

One month, two months... then many more.
We measured them by hauling both stones and fears on our shoulders,
by tapping a hooked finger along the side of the clay pitcher
to hear the sound of water
just as we listen for the voice of our wife behind a door,
just as our wife listens for the voices of even the smallest of stars,
just as the stars listen for the bleating of flocks at dusk. [...]

[...] If only we were less thirsty, it wouldn't occupy our minds,
if only there was one tree on the hillside or at the top of the island,
if only there was a handful of shade, and less bitterness, and less injustice.

We've forgotten the shape of a tree -- is it, perhaps,
like a large banner of water?
or like a "Thank you" that someone said to you in the past?
or like a lover's hand searching for your hand?

In the future, we'll plant thousands of trees.

(From the poem "Noon".)

In the aftermath of the Second World War, a civil war ensued in Greece, between the populist and labor-oriented political movements of the political left and the right-wing political movements of corporate capitalism and the military; Greece wasn't the only place in the world where this was going on during those years. The business class and military prevailed, in part due to economic and military backing they received from the U.S. government and allies of the U.S. This is some of the wider background to how Yannis Ritsos and thousands of others were sent to prison on islands of rock hammered daily by the sun.


I hadn't intended to let six months pass since my last post in this blog. To any of may have come by looking for anything new during this time, my thanks -- I haven't gone away, just had a few months submerged in the various things of life. I'm still here and will keep posting things in this blog as I'm able to. I don't plan to let six months go again until the next blogpost.

Winter solstice in the northern hemisphere; here in Minneapolis, it's dark when I leave for work in the morning, and dark when I get home in the evening. By the end of January the daylight will have advanced enough so that there will be at least a glow of light in the west, on clear evenings anyway, as I'm getting home in the evening.

Poetry is everywhere. There is nowhere on earth that it doesn't belong.


I'll finish with a few more lines by Yannis Ritsos from Petrified Time.

The days come and go. The rock never changes.
Sometimes a ship sails past, or a cloud --
leaving behind it a scrap of shade, a little window
onto a memory of trees.
Nothing ever changes.
Neither heart nor rock changes. [...]

[...] Evening folds up its red banner.
Once again we will sleep with a stone between our teeth,
with the sea's breathing at the back of our ears.

Brothers, whatever comes now
will find us with our bundles slung over our shoulders,
and in those bundles, all of our hearts
turning our pledge to Democracy over in our minds
the way we twist our finger in the buttonhold of a friend's jacket
not because we have nothing to say
but because of all the love we feel for him -- and so it is:
when we love we cannot speak,
we toy with a branch of wild olive,
scratch a name in the dirt,
and it's always the same, and we'll always be ready,
and it's always the name of Freedom.

(From the poem "Ready".)

Tuesday, July 01, 2014


Savage Coast

I've been away from this blog longer than I'd intended to be -- I've been caught up in daily life stuff again, and doing much reading in "spare time." One of the books I read this past spring, and really liked, is Savage Coast by Muriel Rukeyser (2013, The Feminist Press at the City University of New York).

Savage Coast is a novel based on Rukeyser's experiences in northeastern Spain (Barcelona and the Catalonia region in general) for a few days at the time of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July, 1936. The Spanish Civil War is a large subject; during the years the war took place, roughly July 1936 through early 1939, it became a gravity point for the international political Left, as volunteers from many countries joined the International Brigades and travelled to Spain, and entered full and brutal military war against Fascist armies (led by upper-ranking officers of Spain's military) who were trying to overthrow the elected government.

Rukeyser's novel gives a deeply close-up and personal account, full of remarkable detail, sometimes almost random, sometimes carefully observed and chosen. The overall arc of the story moves from chaos and isolation and vague gestures to sharp vision and collective movement and clarity of purpose. It is a radically political novel, clearly and intentionally, both in the intimately personal-is-political sense and in the public activist communal sense.

Rukeyser travelled to Spain in July 1936 to write and report about an alternative People's Olympics that had been organized in Spain, as a protest and defiance against the "official" summer Olympics that were taking place that year in Germany (and were being used as a propaganda device by the Nazi government there). The lead character in the novel, named Helen, is loosely based on Rukeyser herself, and a number of the other major characters are based on real people who also were there, though Rukeyser says in a short note at the front of the book, "None of the persons are imaginary, but none are represented at all photographically; for any scenes or words in the least part identifiable, innumerable liberties and distortions may be traced."

In the first half of the book the story action takes place mostly on a train after it has entered northeastern Spain; much of the time is spent at a small village where the train has halted because war has broken out further south, and because of a general labor strike in much of the country as a protest against the attempted Fascist counter-revolution. The people do what people do: the passengers on the train try to find information, food, places to sleep, in the village and in whatever small supplies they have with them on the train; the people in the town cope with the sudden influx of visitors as best they're able. Here's a brief passage from early in the book, to give a little flavor of Rukeyser's writing:

All the passengers in third were filling the aisle now, crowding out the open windows, talking to the groups whose heads could be seen, banked thick against the sides of the train, standing on both sides of the station platform. Helen pushed back through the swarming cars, through the holiday knots, laughter, gossip. An arm reached out and seized her wrist. Igt was the tight-skinned Hungarian, the manager.

"Have you heard the rumors?" he shouted, over the laughter and talk. "All sorts of rumors, already. The English are saying that the Communists have bombed the tracks and that we can't go farther; and I heard the Frenchman say that the engineer has gone on strike, and won't move the train until he gets some kind of extravagant promise." He fanned himself with the straw hat. "But come in and meet our team anyway." The Hungarians were standing, politeness and warmth ran around the compartment. The fine-faced printer was introduced. "It looks like something real," he said. "But obviously nobody knows that. You probably ought to find the other Americans."

"I know one of them," said Helen. "I wish you'd go down and reassure her. She's on her way to the bullfights, and she turned into jelly when they searched the train."

"They were absolute correct to search the train," the printer answered. They destroyed some snapshots we were taking, too. Last spring, they said, the Fascists caught a lot of photographs of armed civilians, and anyone whose face was clear got his. They're not taking any chances."

"But if you've been talking with them --" Helen cried, her face darkening with excitement. "What do they say is happening?"

"They only said that," the printer told her. He was a young student, from his look, his earnest clear glance, but the marks about his mouth and his darkened, blunt fingers showed how long he had spent at work; he looked straightforward at Helen now, obviously telling all he knew. "They were ordered to go through the train; for all they knew, the girl said, it's just an examination, and we'll go right on through to Barcelona."

As I read the book, I kept thinking of the word "cinematic" to describe the shifts in scene, the dialogue that often seems carefully written and offhand at the same time, the changes in view from long shot to close-up to angular glance to clear simple frame, again both carefully set up and almost randomly occurring.

Muriel Rukeyser was in Spain for a few days. During that time, she met a man from Germany, Otto Boch, a runner who had come to Spain for the Olympics. They became lovers. Boch stayed, and joined the anti-Fascist International Brigades, and was killed in the civil war. One of the characters in Savage Coast is a German runner based on Boch, and in novel he and Rukeyser's character Helen become lovers. Some years later, in the late 1940's after the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, Rukeyser dedicated her poem cycle Elegies to Otto Boch.

In the second half of the novel, Helen and her several traveling companions find a way to Barcelona, a city bright and joyous with popular insurgence; the city shows marks of recent fighting, and there is still danger from Fascist snipers and abductors. The days become filled with large public gatherings, official ceremonies, following rumors and threads of news reports, as the weight of the mounting events of the larger world grows ever greater. And mingled with this, the realization by the many visitors that they'll need to decide, and soon, whether to leave for home or to stay and join the coming storm.

Here's another passage from the book; the scene takes place on the first morning after Helen and others from the train have arrived in Barcelona:

Helen went immediate to the window, hauled up the venetian blind, and stood in the broad panel of sunlight the struck across the room. The gunfire continued. Facing her, a curved wall of arches surprised her, thrown block-long and receding; it took her a second to recognize the tiers and galleries of the arena, the slim pillars which were so perfect for snipers. Her eye ran over the shaded colonnade with animal speed: she had become vigilant, it gave her a tremendous sense of health and freshness to wake without fear and speculate on concealed rifles.

The angle of the Olympic cut down across her view to the right, and she could see nothing but a boarded up café, a filling station, and the radiator and front wheels of the overturned car. But to the left lay the new city, ruled square, block after block of new apartment houses patched white with flags of truce. Behind them stood the high fortress on its strip of cliff, cutting the mountain range abruptly to an end.

Olive and Peter were lying awake in bed.

"That was the seven o'clock bell, wasn't it?"

"That was the beginning of the shooting," laughed Olive. Correct response, thought Helen. She came over to the window in Helen's room. "They said something about leaving the blinds drawn."

"I don't know," Helen said slowly. "I don't mind an open window on a street, so much, today."

"I think I'm finished with all that too. Peter and I were walking to dinner when we missed you; Peter had just said something about the truck-ride and fear when a car came up. The driver asked us to get in, and we didn't think anything of it. There was a guard with a submachine gun; everything seemed proper until they started driving and took us miles through the country, or park -- darkness, anyway. They didn't say a word to us. Then we began to remember things -- we hadn't noticed the initials on the car, fascists can drive cars too, we didn't speak Catalan, the car had only one door -- all of those things."

"It's a big park," Helen said.

"A goddamned big park. But it may have cured me."

They hung out the window. At the filling station, cars and trucks were already lined up, C.N.T and U.G.T cars for the most part, and the proprietor and two assistants were supplying them, lifting the dripping nozzle out of one tank and dropping it into the next without bothering to check the stream of gas.

"They're going to run short of cars," Helen remarked under the grinding of gears as they rushed down the street."

"The state's requisitioning cars from dealers," said Peter, from bed.

"There was a Ford sign on the road."

Helen knew she would always have this first morning of complete confidence. Peter and Olive had it too, she saw, reading their faces. One more lie to hold against the books! she reflected; the foolish irrelevant stories of people's characters changing like wind which shifts.

She had wanted a life for herself, and found she was unequipped; and adjusting her wants, cared to be a person prepared for that life. I want greatness, she thought, the rich faces of the living. All the tenseness stood in the way, and see how it removes! One morning, and the fear of death is replaced.

Rukeyser wrote Savage Coast immediately after her return from Spain in 1936. Early reactions from at least one reader of the manuscript, and one potential publisher, were strongly negative -- likely reacting against the left-leaning politics of the novel, as much as against the courage and joy and audacity of a woman making a strong clear statement -- and she put the novel away among her papers, and it remained mostly unknown, and unpublished, during her lifetime and for several decades after that.

The edition published by The Feminist Press has been edited with skill and sensitivity by Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, and includes an Introduction by Kennedy-Epstein and useful endnotes. Over the years Rukeyser wrote several journalistic articles about her days in Spain in 1936, and the Feminist Press edition includes one of these at the end of the book, "We Came for the Games: A Memoir of the People's Olympics, Barcelona, 1936," originally published in Esquire magazine in October 1974.

The Feminist Press has also published a booklet of several other short pieces by Muriel Rukeyser, "Barcelona, 1936" and Selections from the Spanish Civil War Archive, Series 2, Number 6, published in the Lost and Found series of the CUNY Center for the Humanties, Spring 2011. Both articles help highlight how closely Rukeyser held to the essential facts of the events that occurred during her days in Spain, including many critical details of dialogue, descriptions of buildings and people and public places, and so on. The "Barcelona, 1936" pamplet includes, among other things, an image of a hand-drawn map of the small town where the train waited for a few days.

I'll finish here with one further passage from near the end of the novel; the scene is a large public gathering in Barcelona, in which speakers recount the difficult previous days and the hard time of struggle that waits ahead. This section of the novel includes interspersed lists of names of people in Spain who had died during the previous days of fighting.

They could not be seen, they could not yet be heard; it was the cry advancing with them, its front advancing as their front rank came up, that made them known: a great female animal cry, victorious wail of spectators, the city acclaim of those on the edge and sympathetic, who still have throats to cheer, while those silent fighters pass between their lines.

And now the "Internationale" sprang up, strange, in foreign inflections, as the Norwegians began to sing, changing the wordfall, the sound, almost the song itself.

The Dutch, and the Hungarians; picked it up, unfamiliar, only the form carrying it through, the marching tune.

The French were missing.

But it reached the crowd of Belgians, the song came nearer, the great crying welcome to the army came, mixing, until the chorus became a crying greet:

"C'est la lutte finale,
"Groupon-nous, et demain,"

...El directive de la C.N.T. Francisco Acaso, Eduardo Gorgot, José Biota, Javier Noguera, Alejandro Prodonis y Fuentes, Concepción Canet y Alcaráz, Vicente Vásquez, Salvador Guerrero, José González y Valencia, Enrique Arnau y Erude, Julián Gil y González...


Here! The first line of set faces, brackets of arms set in perpetual fist, red bands about the head, straight stony foreheads dark.

"Sera le genre humain..."

In a high sung note, praising, crying, speeding an army of unarmed men, who walked rope-soled, blankets slung at the shoulder, their women with them, a few, among them, a few, running beside in the blaze, past the shining confiscated roadsters, the homemade armored cars, the lines of spectators, and the Olympic lines who backed them, singing the unique song, finally arriving to the double English version, the English and Americans singing, welcoming, as the army passed; an army, not in the pathetic small battalions of the night before, but rounded up, strong in numbers, unshakeable, but barely clothed, barely helmeted, barely armed.

They passed for minutes, the lines of soldiers, passing to a new phase of war. The city was strong now in its own defense; in a day, eferything would be running once more, the city would be held; but these were going to be the outer front. Almost exhausted by the internal battle, with the strenuous look of purity on their faces, they must be renewed to the next front.

They must be renewed. They must be enough.


I've written about Muriel Rukeyser previously in this blog, here, and here.

There's a great deal of information and general background on the internet about the Spanish Civil War, with varying reliability. A good place to start is the website of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive, here. The Lincoln Brigade was the name taken by many of the volunteers from the United States who went to Spain to join the international struggle against the Fascist military invasion. The Lincoln Brigade website includes history, educational materials, current upcoming events related to study of the Spanish Civil War, links to other online sources, and other material.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


A few paragraphs from John Berger

Here are a few paragraphs from the British Marxist art critic John Berger, from his essay "A Professional Secret," in his Selected Essays published 2001 by Vintage Books. Berger talks here primarily about some of his encounters with paintings, visual art; his comments surely are relevant to poetry writing and other creative work as well.

I've read much of John Berger's writing over the years, mostly his art criticism and other essays, also his novel From A to X, which I loved. I often go to his writing when I need to clear my mind, sharpen my critical thought, step back and get some perspective on things. I've learned a great deal from Berger's work, about looking at art and looking at the world.

In his essay "A Professional Secret," originally published in 1987, Berger begins by talking about a painting by Hans Holbein he wants to go and see in Switzerland (he's lived for many years in the foothills of the French Alps). He arrives in Berne, discovers the Holbein painting is in a different city in Switzerland, so he and his companion go and visit an art museum in Berne.

He talks a little about painted Christian images of violence and brutality (depictions of Christian martyrs, the crucifixion, etc.) -- the contradictory nature of such images, such subject matter painted so beautifully -- and then he asks: "how can the brutal be made visibly acceptable?"

Berger continues:

The question begins with the Renaissance. In medieval art the suffering of the body was subservient to the live of the soul. And this was an article of faith which the spectator brought with him to the image; the life of the soul did not have to be demonstrated in the image itself. A lot of medieval art is grotesque -- that is to say a reminder of the worthlessness of everything physical. Renaissance art idealizes the body and reduces the body to gesture. (A similar reduction occurs in Westerns: see John Wayne or Gary Cooper.) [...]

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Goya, because of his unflinching approach to horror and brutality, was the first modern artist. Yes those who look at his etchings would never choose to look at the mutilated corpses they depict with such fidelity. So we are forced back to the same question, which one might formulate differently: how does catharsis work in visual art, if it does?

Berger then says, in effect, that catharsis doesn't work in art: "Paintings don't offer catharsis. They offer something similar, but different."

Berger mentions several paintings in the museum, from the late nineteenth century and the twentieth century: Courbet, Monet, Braque, Klee, Rothko.

Quoting Berger again:

How much courage and energy were necessary to struggle for the right to paint in different ways! And today these canvases, outcome of that struggle, hang peacefully beside the most conservative pictures: all united within the agreeable aroma of coffee, wafted from the cafeteria next to the bookshop.

The battles were fought over what? At its simplest -- over the language of painting. No painting is possible without a pictorial language, yet with the birth of modernism and after the French Revolution, the use of any language was controversial. The battles were between custodians and innovators. The custodians belonged to institutions that had behind them a ruling class or an élite who needed appearances to be rendered in a way which sustained the ideological basis of their power.

The innovators were rebels. Two axioms to bear in mind here: sedition is, by definition, ungrammatical; the artist is the first to recognize when a language is lying.

I read this passage, and I think immediately of those poets and writers I've known over the years who have survived (and occasionally prospered) by getting one foundation grant after another, eventually settling into teaching jobs somewhere; poets and writers who have spent much of their lives and efforts in service of the custodians Berger talks about here: adept at (and comfortable with) rendering appearances in a way which sustains the ideological basis of the power of their custodians.

And again from Berger's essay:

Image-making begins with interrogating appearances and making marks. Every artist discovers that drawing -- when it is an urgent activity -- is a two-way process. to draw is not only to measure and put down, it is also to receive. When the intensity of looking reaches a certain degree, one becomes aware of an equally intense energy coming towards one, through the appearance of whatever one is scrutinizing. Giacometti's life's work is a demonstration of this.

The encounter of these two energies, their dialogue, does not have the form of question and answer. It is a ferocious and inarticulated dialogue. To sustain it requires faith. It is a burrowing in the dark, a burrowing under the apparent. The great images occur when the two tunnels meet and join perfectly. Sometimes when the dialogue is swift, almost instantaneous, it is like something thrown and caught.

I offer no explanation for this experience. I simply believe very few artists will deny it. It's a professional secret. [...]


There's much more in Berger's essay, and much more in his other writings. If you're not familiar with John Berger's art criticism, a good place to start might be his book Ways of Seeing, published in the 1960's, based on a BBC T.V. series of the same name that he was involved with. I found the book especially useful because of the many pictures it includes to illustrate the art and art criticism concepts he talks about.

I've written about John Berger's novel From A to X previously in this blog, here. I highly recommend it also.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Muriel Rukeyser's Elegies

Among the various things I've been reading lately is Elegies by Muriel Rukeyser (a new edition published 2013 by New Directions; originally published by New Directions in 1949). The book is a gathering of 10 poems, each several pages in length, that Rukeyser wrote over a period of years in the 1930's and 1940's. I love Rukeyser's poetry, and it's a joy and a wonder to read this sequence of poems in its full concentration and power.

The events of the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930's were among the original sources of impulse for the poems; also, in a different way, Rilke's Duino Elegies. Rukeyser dedicated the Elegies to Otto Boch, a German man she met on her way to Spain at the outbreak of the civil war. Boch became Rukeyser's lover, and later he died while fighting against the Fascist invasion of Spain.

The poems form a remarkable and varied river of moods and tones and textures, sometimes flowing and lyrical, sometimes keenly philosophical, sometimes fervent and urging, sometimes verging on prophetic ecstasy. Here are some lines from the second elegy, which is titled "Age of Magicians":

Does this life permit its living to wear strength?
Who gives it, protects it. It is food.
Who refuses it, it eats in time as food.
It is the world and it eats the world.
Who knows this, knows. This has been said.
This is the vision of the age of magicians :
it stands at immense barriers, before mountains :
'I came to you in the form of a line of men,
and when you threw down the paper, and when you sat at the play,
and when you killed the spider, and when you saw the shadow
of the fast plane skim fast over your lover's face.
And when you saw the table of diplomats,
the newsreel of ministers, the paycut slip,
the crushed child's head, clean steel, factories,
the chessmen on the marble of the floor,
each flag a country, each chessman a live man,
one side advancing southward to the pit,
one side advancing northward to the lake,
and when you saw the tree, half bright half burning.
You never enquired into these meanings.
If you had done this, you would have been restored.'

I read these lines, and others of a similar surge in the book, and I think of the news events of our time, of this year, the rattlling of heavy guns along borders, the proud strutting of members of Congress accompanied by lobbyists from Exxon Mobil or JPMorgan Chase or Comcast... I think of the young men and woman who lured into joining the militaries of the world out of some notion of serving a "country" or because the available choices for any kind of livable future are shinking in the shadow of the ravenous mega-economies of corporate empire.

And here are some lines from the seventh elegy, titled "Dream-Singing Elegy," which evokes a world of a greatness and beauty and possibility that touches the sleeping and waking dreams of all of us, all of us who have not given up, who have not forsaken life or succumbed to the feeding frenzies of the commodity world:

When we began to fight, we sang hatred and death.
The new songs say, "Soon all people on earth
will live together." We resist and bless
and we begin to travel from defeat.
Now, as you sing your dream, you ask the dancers,
in the night, in the still night, in the night,
"Do you believe what I say?"
And all the dancers answer "Yes."

To the farthest west, the sea and the striped country
and deep in the camps among the wounded cities
half-world over, the waking dreams of night,
outrange the horrors. Past fierce and tossing skies
the rare desires shine in constellation.
I hear your cries, you little voices of children
swaying wild, nightlost, in black fields calling.
I hear you as the seething dreams arrive
over the sea and past the flaming mountains.
Now the great human dream as great as birth or death,
only that we are not given to remember birth,
only that we are not given to hand down death,
this we hand down and remember.

Brothers in dream, naked-standing friend,
rising over the night, crying aloud,
beaten and beaten and rising from defeat,
crying as we cry : We are the world together.
Here is the place in hope, on time's hillside,
where hope, in one's images, wavers for the last time
and moves out of one's body up the slope.
That place in love, where one's self, as the body of love,
moves out of the old lifetime towards the beloved.

I've been reading and rereading Elegies. I find new roads and depths in each reading.

The new edition includes a perceptive Introduction by Jan Heller Levi and Christoph Keller, written in ten brief sections, which provides useful background on the poems, and on Muriel Rukeyser's life during the years when she was writing them.

I've written about Muriel Rukeyser's poetry previously in this blog, here.

Friday, March 14, 2014


Poet Bill Knott

Poet Bill Knott died this past Wednesday March 12 at age 74, following complications from surgery. I first read a few of Bill Knott's poems in a paper handout in a poetry writing class I was in during my last year of high school (1971-72); the poems in the handout were given without the poets' names, so it was a few years later when I found his first book, The Naomi Poems, Book One: Corpse and Beans, that I found his poems again and attached his name to them

I've always loved many of the poems in The Naomi Poems, the deep blue sensuality and delicacy of his love poems, the sharp acrimony of his politically explicit poems. In Knott's later books, he experimented in other directions with his poems, and I didn't always feel drawn to his later work.

I didn't know much about Knott's life, and more or less lost touch with his work for a number of years. Over time he apparently came to feel cynicism and rancor about the inward-looking office politics of the literary publishing world in the United States, and in recent years he stopped searching for publishers for his books of poems, in some cases refused offers to bring earlier books of his back into print, and at one point he started publishing his poem old and new on an online blog and making his work available for free.

In one interview, Knott discussed in detail his reasons for considering himself to have failed as a poet, or at any rate to have failed at a career in the the world of literary awards and contests and other sorts of literary competition. He did in fact receive several major literary awards and grants over the years, and he taught for more than 25 years at Emerson College. There were many other poets and professors his age and younger, of weaker ability as poets, who received greater literary and career acclaim much earlier in their lives.

A good interview with Bill Knott, from sometime around 2004, is in the online literary magazine Memorious, here.

An insightful article by John Cotter on Bill Knott's poetry is in the website of the Poetry Foundation (affiliated with Poetry magazine in Chicago), here.

A obituary for Bill Knott, along with four of his poems, is in the online magazine Open Letters Monthly, here.

Thanks to poet blogger Elisa Gabbert, in whose blog The French Exit I found each of the above weblinks.

*   *

Here are four short poems by Bill Knott that I've always liked, from The Naomi Poems, Book One: Corpse and Beans.



If you are still alive when you read this,
close your eyes. I am
under their lids, growing black.



Going to sleep, I cross my hands on my chest.
They will place my hands like this.
It will look as though I am flying into myself.


Retort to Pasternak

The centuries like barges have floated
out of the darkness, to communism: not to be judged,
but to be unloaded.



Let the dead bury the dead:
it is said. But I say it is we living
who have been shoved underground, who must now rise up
to bury the dead, the Johnsons, Francos, Fords and McNamaras.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Writing Process Blog Tour

Last month I got an e-mail from poet friend Julia Stein, who was taking part in a kind of chain blogpost passing from one person to another. The idea is for each writer who's taking part to write a blogpost answering four questions.

The four questions are: What am I working on? How does my work differ from others of its genre? Why do I write what I do? How does your writing process work?

My first impulse was not to attempt answering the questions, because these are pretty broad questions, and they touch on stuff that writers and artists and philosphers and workers of all kinds have been tangling with for, what, thousands (or, possibly, hundreds of thousands) of years. I had no notion how I might answer most of the questions.

But after talking with Julia about it a little more, I decided to attempt this. This will likely be kind of muddled.

What am I working on?
I write mostly poetry. I've been writing for 45 years. I write somewhat sporadically, some days I find it relatively easy to write, the poems come out without great effort, other days I have to push with a real act of will, dig for the next line, I'll find maybe a line or two for something I'm writing and that's it for the day. Some days nothing comes out. I try to spend at least a little while every day sitting with my notebook open in front of me or near me, waiting to see if something will bite. (I write by hand with a pen in a paper notebook.)

(I just paused here for a minute, went and looked out the window at the sun setting in a chilly northern March sky, long swashes of flaming pink and pale rose and lilac clouds ranged across a faint blue evening sky, the sky near the horizon so pale it's almost white, above the intricately tangled tree branches in the old cemetery across the street.)

I always try to sit with the notebook open at least for a little while each day, whether or not I'm able to write anything.

At any time I'm usually working on several poems in progress, and at any time the poems I'm writing are gradually gathering together into three or four poetry book manuscripts in progress. (I also have, right now four or five completed poetry book manuscripts that are, theoretically, looking for homes, though I'm not highly vigorous in searching for publishers.

Right now the two manuscripts I seem to be paying the most attention to are one titled, probably, Road Song and Annunciation, which may be completed or nearly completed, and one titled, maybe, Twentieth Century Modern, which probably isn't completed yet.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Each time I think about this question, I'm put off by how arrogant and smug it sounds. I don't know whether my work differs from any other work. Much more interesting to me what one person's poetry may have in common with another person's poetry. Written poetry has existed in the world for several thousand years, and oral poetry (and its ancestor, chant and song and solemn ritual and ecstatic dance) has likely existed for several tens of thousand years at least. (Poet Gary Snyder, among others, has written much on this -- the enduring practices of literature, i.e. oral literature, that begin long before the practices of writing.)

I tend toward poetry that tries to have some perceptible connection between a person's interior world and the exterior world around us. Poetry that is relevant to the billion daily events of our individual lives and our collective lives, our individual and collective histories. Political, would be one word to describe what I intend when I write poems, at least much of the time. All human activity is political; all human activity takes place in the context of all other human activity, in the past and the present and moving into the future. Poetry is a part of this collective act, just a much as any other human action is.

Why do I write what I do?
I maybe have partly answered this in my answer to the previous question. In the more basic sense, why I write poetry, why anyone does, or paints paintings or makes music or dance, these things are, at least in part, rooted in the most basic questions that face all of us. Questions about why we exist, what it means to exist, what it means to think these things, to be conscious of our own existence and thought and longing.

Poetry is one way for the mysterious inner life of one person to meet and speak with the mysterious inner life of another person, through the medium of the common world and life we share, which is, among other things, political. Long-time poet friend Roy McBride said, "You don't make poetry out of nothing, you make poetry out of everything."

How does your writing process work?
Of the four questions here, this is maybe the most difficult to answer. I sit with my notebook open, feel or "listen" in myself, around myself, for anything that might want to come out. Writing seems to come and go in cycles for me; I have periods of active almost constant writing, for days and (now and then) weeks, and then periods of little or nothing, "dry" periods, or days or (sometimes) weeks. One of the difficult and necessary disciplines I've needed to learn has been how to wait out the dry times when I'm not writing, or not writing much, or grind out just a line or two every few days.

In a certain sense -- in the sense of sitting with the notebook and waiting and listening -- I'm always writing, though not always literally writing something down on the page.

Sometimes after a dry few days or week or two, I'll start feeling a kind of vague irritableness, something grumbling and rumbling just below the surface of clear articulation. By now, after many years, I've found that this often means a poem or two are taking shape (but, sometimes, not yet ready to come out).

A poem often comes to me (whatever "comes to me" means exactly) as a kind of three-dimensional geometric shape (or, maybe, four-dimensional, though I'm not entirely sure what a four-dimensional shape looks like). I'll get a kind of quick glimpse of what the poem might be, how long it might be, where it slows and quickens, how wide-reaching it is, how many parts of the universe it pulls into itself, how close-up-detailed it is, things like that. Little by little, I start attaching words to the points and pieces of the geometric shape, the flicker of universe that's emerging from whatever place it is that poems emerge from. I'll write the first line.

I don't have a very clear notion of where it is that poems "come from," or what it exactly means when a poems comes or comes out. It might be possible to describe writing a poem as being in a state of dreaming and waking at the same time, maybe not literally so, but at least some state of mind resembling that. I do know that some of the techniques I've found effective at remembering dreams when I've waken up remembering only a brief scene or moment or fragment, also seem to be useful in finding a full poem when all I have are one or two lines. At least in a sense, poems often seem to me to begin in the silence and space before words.

I don't write multiple drafts of poems. Typically I start with the first line, and I cross out and rewrite, as needed, as I work line by line through the poem. So, most of the time, the first draft is in effect also the final draft. Sometimes I get stuck, not sure what comes next in a poem, and then there's nothing to do by sit and wait for it. Sometimes I've waited a day or several days or a few weeks, then more of the poem starts coming out again. Sometimes I've waited years. I have at least a couple of poems that sat half-finished in my notebook for more than ten years before I figured out how to finish them. Usually it doesn't take that long...

For many years the whole preliminary incubation of the poem was entirely interior for me, I just sat and waited for it. In recent years I've sometimes started writing a few notes for a poem as it starts taking shape. Once it's at the very brink of forming and coming out, it can happen very quickly, and sometimes I can lose the thread of it. I've found that writing down the bits and pieces of lines as they took shape has been helpful in not losing track of a poem once I start writing it. It took a long time before I felt sure enough of what I was doing, before I started writing down notes for a poem before I actually wrote it. And even now I don't do that all the time. Sometimes it just seems to work best to let the poem come out as it comes. Most of this is a more or less mysterious thing to me.

At some point when I'm working on a poem, it's done, or as done as I'm going to get it. Learning when to leave off, when to stop working and working the poem and let it be done. A poem that is worked too much, that is too oversmoothed, may loose some of the power it had when it first emerged into articulation, it may start to become a little too mass-produced. (This may be a way to start to approach questions about the differences between art and craft, though that's maybe another discussion.) It took me a while to learn the discipline of letting the poem be done, to understand that there will be more poems.


That's what I've got right now on the four questoins Julia Stein passed along to me. Thanks for the nudge, Julia.

Monday, March 03, 2014


AWP in Seattle 2014

I went to the annual AWP conference in Seattle this past week. The conference took place from Thursday Feb. 27 through Saturday Mar. 1; I flew out on Wednesday the 26th and flew back to Minneapolis on Sunday the 2nd. Here's a brief rundown of the events I attended and other miscellaneous stuff about the conference. I didn't take notes much during any of the conference days, so this will be a little disorganized.


The conference event I liked best was a panel and reading in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of poet William Stafford. I've always liked Stafford's poetry -- his quiet plain-speaking manner, his poems that often seem simple and innocent, or just odd, at first reading, and that seep more deeply into bedrock after sitting with them a little. Panelists were writer Kim Stafford (William Stafford's son), and poets Brian Turner, Toi Derricotte, and Coleman Barks; the panel moderator was Jeff Schotts of Graywolf Press (Graywolf has published several of Stafford's books). The panel members recalled their encounters with William Stafford, and read poems of his, with much warm humor and quiet reflection. * If you're not familiar with Stafford's poetry, a useful recent collection is Ask Me: 100 essential poems, edited by Kim Stafford, published in 2014 by Graywolf Press.

Another good one was a panel exploring the poetry and life work of Hayden Carruth. Carruth is a poet whose poems I've only read a little over the years; I've known him mainly through the anthology he edited in the 1970's, The Voice That Is Great Within Us, which has been widely used by poetry teachers over the years since. Panel members were Malena Mörling, Lee Briccetti, Douglas Unger, Sam Hamill (who, when he was publisher of Copper Canyon Press, published several of Carruth's books), and moderator Shaun Griffin. The panel began with an audio recording of Carruth, in his sonorous baritone voice reading his poem "The Impossible Indispensability of the Ars Poetica." Each of the panelists in turn then talked a little about the importance of Hayden Carruth's poetry, his long difficult life (especially his struggles to make enough of a living to survive from week to week, and his struggle to publish and to keep his books in print in the face of academic and critical indifference); each of the panelists read a few of Carruth's poems.I found myself following along with the poems sometimes in a copy of Carruth's book Toward the Distant Islands (see the list of books at the bottom of this article); I don't usually do that during poetry readings, though I found it useful in keeping pace with Carruth's sometimes tangled and insistent poems of philosophical argument. One of the things I like to do at writing events (such as AWP) is to seek out the work of writers I'm not deeply familiar with, to try to see what I may have missed; I'm glad I went to the panel on Hayden Carruth's work.

The panel Hyphenated Poets: Ethnic American Writing Against Type featured electrifying readings by poets Barbara Jane Reyes, Cathy Park Hong, and Solmaz Sharif. (A fourth scheduled panelist, Farid Matuk, wasn't able to attend; the panel moderator was Kaveh Bassiri.) While I found some of the poetry difficult at first (sometimes made of broken sentences, sometimes code-switching rapidly from one way of speaking to another), I didn't find the occasional difficulty or unfamiliarity alienating; I generally found that the poems spoke to me through the initial difficulty I found in them; I was usually able to reach past my own unfamiliarity with what the poems were doing. For some time I've been reading poet Barbara Jane Reyes's blog, and was pleased that we were able to meet face to face at the event.

Other AWP events I attended and enjoyed were the panel "Writing Inside Out: Authors' Day Jobs;" the panel "Native American Poetics: The Fourth Wave" which featured poet friends Erika Wurth and Marianne Broyles;and a reading by several poets to celebrate the 25th year of the magazine Image, which included poet friend Gina Franco.

There were a couple of other events I had hoped to get to, and as usual at these things, my energies started to fade toward late afternoon, and my concentration started to wander, and I had to retreat and rest.


When I wasn't at readings and panel events, I spent quite a bit of time wandering the giant bookfair, which filled a couple of huge exhibit halls and a connecting space between them. I had a chance to chat with John Crawford, publisher of West End Press; also with poet friend Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, publisher of Mongrel Empire Press; Bryce Milligan, publisher of Wings Press; Gary Willkie of Anthology Books in Portland, Oregon, who was filling in briefly at a bookfair table for someone else; I also had the pleasure of meeting again poet Pamela Uschuk, and poet Natalia Treviño (her book is listed in the book list below). * (Note regarding the above link to Anthology Books: although the web address says "acequiabooks" -- the previous name of the bookstore when they were in Albuquerque -- the webpage itself now shows their new name Anthology Books.) Also talked a bit with M. Scott Douglass, editor and publisher of Main Street Rag.

Most of the AWP events, and the bookfair, were at the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle. I found the maps of the convention center fairly confusing, with floors layered one atop another at apparently impossible angles to each other. I found it a little easier to find my way around just searching on foot, though still almost became lost once or twice. The building seemed to have been designed randomly, with escalators to some floors but not others. In one instance, an escalator from the 4th floor went up one level to the 6th floor, with no mention of a 5th floor. There were a couple of sets of rooms with identical room numbers in different parts of the convention center; some were being used and some weren't, and to find the ones that were being used it was necessary to follow a twisting passage to another wing of the building with its own set of conflicting escalators. There was yet another set of event rooms, and the only way I found to get there was to go down an escalator that could be reached only by making your way through the entire bookfair to an access doorway at the back of the largest exhibit hall. One runs into such things sometimes in cities that are built on hills.

There were also some AWP events that took place in meeting rooms at the Seattle Sheraton a block from the convention center. Occasionally I saw people running madly up or down multiple escalators, trying desperately to get from one event to another during the 15 minute interval between events. Reminded me of trying to get to class on time in high school...

There were plenty of places to just sit between events, which I appreciated, especially as the days eased toward late afternoon. The weather in Seattle was beautifully mild; high temps around 60 degrees the first couple of days with plenty of sun, then a little cooler after than with grayer skies (though the highs were still in the low 50's or early 40's). It rained a little on Saturday. Here in Minneapolis the temperature was something like minus 10 the day I flew to Seattle, and was around 10 above zero when I got back on Sunday; the Seattle weather felt like spring. Here and there, if I looked in the right direction, a glimpse of mountains or water; seagulls floating above the downtown Seattle roofs.


As I've done each of the previous years I've been to the AWP conference, I brought home too many books from the bookfair. Here's a list of the items I found, all of which I recommend:

Life's Good, Brother by Nazim Hikmet, a novel (published originally in 1962) by the great Communist poet of Turkey, translated by Mutlu Konuk Blasing (Persea Books, 2013).

Sueño by Lorna Dee Cervantes, her most recent books of poems (Wings Press, 2013).

Toward the Distant Islands: New and Selected Poems by Hayden Carruth (Copper Canyon Press, 2006).

Lavando the Dirty Laundry, poems by Natalia Treviño (Mongrel Empire Press, 2014).

The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan, poems by a poet of China from the T'ang Dynasty period, translated by David Hinton (Archipelago Books, 2004).

Woman on the Terrace by Moon Chung-hee, poems by a present-day poet of South Korea, translated by Seong-kon Kim and Alec Gordon (White Pine Press, 2007).

4-Headed Woman, poems by Opal Palmer Adisa (Tía Chucha Press, 2013).

Engine Empire, poems by Cathy Park Hong (W. W. Norton, 2012).

Eye of Water, poems by Amber Flora Thomas (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005); I found this one on the Cave Canem table at the bookfair.

Poems of Love and Madness: Selected Translations by Carlos Reyes, a gathering of translations of various poets; includes the English translations and the Spanish originals (Lynx House Press, 2013).

M. Scott Douglass, published of Main Street Rag, also kindly gave me a copy of the Winter 2014 issue, after I realized that my subscription had lapsed. * Thanks, Scott -- I'll be sending a renewal shortly.

 **  I haven't inserted weblinks for the items in the book list here. All of the publishers have websites -- I encourage you to go and find them online.


Next year the AWP conference will be here in Minneapolis the second week of April. Weather can be variable here that time of year. Bring a winter coat and shorts.

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