Contemporary Poetry Review

An Editorial By:
Ernest Hilbert

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Chasing the Scent of Laurel: Matters in the Po-Biz

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          Last year I attended a Halloween party as the poet Virgil. I was inspired to do so after Robert Fagles, famous for his translations from the Greek of Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, read from his translation-in-progress of the Roman poet at Bryn Mawr College (later, Fagles was kind enough to sign my copy of The Odyssey—his completed Aeneid appears this month from Viking). In order to distinguish myself from the “Bluto” Blutarsky variety of toga-wearers at the Halloween party, I declaimed, in clumsy dactylic hexameter, the opening lines of the Aeneid, “Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris / Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit,” and so on. Even at a party attended largely by writers, antiquarian book dealers, and the staff of one of the more successful American poetry magazines, these pompous maneuvers failed to drive the point home (an amateur Byronist at the bar corrected my pronunciation). Just in case, I also wore a sizeable laminated portrait of Virgil accompanied by his name in bold letters. 

Taking it down a notch this year, I attended a party dressed as a classic “escaped convict” in a striped boiler suit, replete with handcuffs (borrowed from the ladies in the art department at my day job) and a ball and chain (the contemporary orange suit is too close, to reality, for comfort). A poet in prison? Mr. Wilde aside, it’s not such a strange thing, really. Apparently, Pete Doherty, the famously dissolute singer for the English rock band The Libertines (from which he was expelled for bad behavior) and now front man for his own band Babyshambles, recently explained that he enjoys passing time during his regular stints in jail with a good book of poetry. (He is equally famous as the notorious former boyfriend of supermodel Kate Moss, and the British press frequently portrays him as a poet.) Doherty was quoted in the Guardian discussing poetry and its importance to him, with a tad less restraint than Dylan Thomas achieved on his last tour of the United States. Doherty roared about Emily Dickinson’s coolness: “Aargh, she’s outrageous man! She’s fuckin’ hardcore! Can’t ignore her.” One imagines the Belle of Amherst flinching, just a bit, as Doherty excitedly sprays lager spittle across the bar. He also expressed great admiration for First World War poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon (he read Sassoon’s “Suicide in the Trenches” on British TV). You might wonder which poet tops Doherty’s list of greats. That would be Rimbaud, of whom Doherty bellowed: “He ended up losing a fucking leg! Did you know that?” It is to be hoped that Doherty will escape the French poet’s influence in that regard. 

            On another obliquely musical note, while reading the Times Literary Supplement between sips of coffee this morning I was delighted to learn of the existence of a poetry “boy band,” called Aisle16: a self-described “collective of five poets and one comedian with a distinctive hard-edged style which attacks the status-quo of media and celebrity driven worlds.” One of their slogans is: “Dude! Doesn’t poetry really mess with your headspace?” For a few days, I was convinced they were an invention of Viz Comics or Ricky Gervais. But they’re real, and, by all accounts, rather popular. They are also broadminded in choosing venues. They have performed at both “Patrick Neate’s highly acclaimed literary nightclub Book Slam” and “John Betjeman’s Centenary Cornish Birthday Party.” They may pose for photographs holding dusty volumes of verse, but they are closer in style to fashionable British hip-hop acts like The Streets than the Poet Laureate (who also tried his hand at “rap” lyrics a few years ago, you will recall). Due to their ostensible nod in the direction of great versifiers, they have received a British Arts Council Grant, which is not, to my knowledge, a staple for hip-hop acts, though perhaps it should be. To continue for just a moment on the topic of boy bands, it occurred to me that after a wave of superstar boy bands swept America in the late 1990s, rock critics were quick to argue for the mop-topped Beatles as the first authentic boy band. I will now make the case for Auden’s Oxford Group—some prefer the “Auden Generation,” and I submit the “Wystan Hugh Experience”—as the precursor to Aisle16: Auden, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis, and heartthrob novelist Christopher Isherwood, though you might find it’s not only girls shrieking hysterically at the gates. 

This season enjoyed the discovery of several new poems. My fiancée is an archaeologist, and in her circles everything is more or less newly uncovered, quite literally. In the literary world, however, such discoveries can be mixed blessings. Any addition to our store of common knowledge is, of course, welcome, but it is unlikely that an author will have allowed his or her greatest creation to slip through the cracks. Happily, a recently found poem by Robert Frost is of considerable interest. Frost wrote out “War Thoughts at Home” in a copy of his second collection, North of Boston (an inscribed first edition of the book, in the scarce preferred binding, even lacking the dust jacket, can sell for well over $20,000; with the dust jacket, it will fetch even more). The poem echoes the quiet style of Frost’s friend, the British poet Edward Thomas, whose otherwise late Georgian pastoral poems are rattled by his collision with the First World War across the Channel. Like so many others, Thomas did not survive the war. An energetic graduate student named Robert Stilling, who found the poem, views it as an important step toward understanding “To E. T.,” Frost’s poem for Thomas. Frost had dated the recently found poem in 1918, and this helps to make it an exciting addition to our stockpile of First World War poetry. As a rare book dealer, I have encountered quite a few volumes of Frost’s poetry with full poems copied out on the endpaper. Often, well-meaning citizens call in to tell me they’ve discovered a previously unknown Frost poem. A quick glance at the first-line index of the collected poems on my desk will typically dispel this scholar-adventurer’s hopeful notion. A small joke in the business is that a virginal first edition of Frost’s earlier books not signed or inscribed with a poem would bring a greater price in the trade. Stilling discussed the poem on CBS News and wrote a splendid introduction to the poem’s appearance in the much-lauded small magazine Virginia Quarterly Review

On the subject of First World War poetry, a new Siegfried Sassoon poem has been discovered, though it has more to do with the mushroom clouds than with mustard gas. Sassoon is best known in England for his nostalgic accounts of pre-war life in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928), the first part of his masterful trilogy, which includes Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) and Sherston’s Progress (1936). In America, he is more likely to be remembered principally for mordant and devastating war poems, which angrily satirize civilian complacency and bankrupt military policy. While Sassoon was famous for those works, he had difficulty gaining recognition for his poetry after the Armistice. Accordingly, he often circulated poems privately to a group of friends, much as an Elizabethan gentleman might (Sassoon, whatever else might be said of him, was a gentleman). One newly uncovered poem was written in 1952 and takes as its subject the possibility of nuclear war:

While the face of youth

dissolved and went

I heard the drone of

endless armament. 

          Although its clanging lines hardly approach the excellence of earlier war poems like the sardonic “To Any Dead Officer” or the startling “Repression of War Experience,” the discovery shows that Sassoon continued to think of his poetry as relevant, even in the nuclear age. Unfortunately, the delicately framed Horatian satires he crafted during the Great War would seem poor weapons against a horror that could easily have dwarfed that of Flanders Fields. The newly public poem, along with several others, will be on the block at Christie’s South Kensington (London) on November 1st. Also included in the sale is a suite of letters written by Sassoon to Lady Ottoline Morrell (lot 138), one of which expresses Sassoon’s contempt for modern poetry (he was a Georgian to the bone): “If you knew how depressed I got about the utter ineffectiveness of modern poetry to justify its claim to be relevant & necessary! Anyone can write nonsense and get away with it!” This cry of exasperation has proven at least as timeless as the defiant tone of his best poems.  

On October 16th, US poet laureate Donald Hall was again a guest on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He spoke with Jeffrey Brown about the usual topics: his ancestral farm, loss of wife Jane Kenyon, and, inevitably, the “place of poetry in our society.” Hall acknowledged he is quite optimistic, explaining: “In my life, I’ve seen [an] enormous increase in the consumption of poetry. When I was young, there were virtually no poetry readings. Now you can’t walk down the block without hitting a poetry reading somewhere. Poetry is simply more popular. It’s still not as popular as dog racing; I understand that.” Two things immediately struck me about this comment. First, there may be more poetry readings now than in the 1950s, but what blocks is he strolling down in danger of inadvertently crashing a poetry reading? The second thing awry is Hall’s casual assumption that poetry is not as popular as dog racing. In terms of sheer numbers, poetry could well be the more popular of the two. This is true for both the number of active participants (people who write poetry themselves) and the quantities of monies involved. It is likely that the number of self-described poets in the United States runs into the millions (online poetry-pyramid schemers list well over a million “poets” on their site alone). Also, one should not neglect to note the amount of money circulating through the American poetry world, with thousands of students, thousands of books, thousands of magazines, hundreds of prizes, some as hefty as $100,000 (the Ruth Lilly and the Wallace Stevens, won respectively in the past year by Richard Wilbur and Michael Palmer). Poetry has the advantage of being less controversial and usually less cruel (depending on the poet) than dog racing. On any given day, I would put my money on poetry, not dog racing, as the more popular American pastime. I wonder if Hall knows about Aisle16? 

Poet and editor Kevin Prufer, one of the genuinely noble members of my own generation of poets, is currently engaged in what I feel to be a crucial battle facing the determined critic: sifting through the past in order to reassess the reputations of poets now largely forgotten, or to assign them a reputation in the first place. Consider that Emily Dickinson’s first book of poetry was not published until 1890, four years after her death, and in an edition of merely 500 copies, virtually unobtainable outside a library special collections department today. During her life, she published only eleven poems, fewer than the typical MFA student. Her first book appearance was in the little-known anthology A Masque of Poets in 1878, part of the “No Name” series, in which the poems were published anonymously (not that her name would have mattered much at that point). All her other appearances were in magazines or newspapers. It would have been quite easy for such a slender contribution to be utterly obliterated, except that it wasn’t really so small. While she had no public life as a poet, the roots of her achievement ran deep. After Emily’s death, her sister Lavinia was astonished to stumble upon a locked box brimming with an astounding 1,775 manuscript poems. Just imagine what would have happened if Lavinia had been a less devoted sister or cared less for her late sister’s versifying. 

Prufer has undertaken a task nothing short of heroic, considering the deluge of new poetry published in the past ten years (even read at the rate of one book per day, it could take more than a lifetime just to read the poetry published in the US since the start of Clinton’s second term). Rather than rinsing the Augean stables, as some critics prefer to do, he has begun a quest for the Golden Fleece. Prufer and Joy Katz have edited an anthology of out-of-print poetry called Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems (again, with “dark horses” the trope of betting hovers over poetry this season). Prufer puts the case bluntly: “If you restrict yourself to poetry books printed by mainstream corporate publishers or, worse, those giant anthologies you used to lug to your high school English class, you’ll miss out on 99 percent of the best poetry written in the last 50 years.” I can identify fully with Prufer and his mission. I confess that I too am the sort who lurks in the faintly lit aisles of used bookstores poring over books of poetry, endlessly searching for some breathtaking gem I have yet to encounter. In fact, I buy several books of poetry a week, more than half of them used, and I have fond memories of inspecting the shelves of little bookstores in San Francisco, Paris, Boston, London, Oxford, New Orleans, New York, Venice, Savannah, Las Cruces, and my current home, Philadelphia (It is a matter of time before the euphemistic trends in American business catch up with the book trade and we run into “certified pre-read books”). 

Following the first of what I imagine will be many sorties, Prufer’s highest recommendation is for “Dunstan Thompson, a WWII GI who published two masterful, erotic, violent books in the 1940s, then disappeared from the poetry world.” Here is an example provided by Prufer:

The lion is like him and the elusive leopard:

Nine lives, he ranges—killer cat—my heart.

Green is the hanging moss, and green the jungle

Creeper: green where the gold plantations part

Their bamboo branches for a murderer’s head.

In green courts he eats meat from the green dead. 

Unfortunately, Thompson’s obscurity seems to be guaranteed. As Prufer explains: “On his deathbed, Mr. Thompson asked that his books not be republished, that his poems never be printed again.” Thompson’s books are impossible to find, and, when they do surface in the future, are sure to achieve unusually high prices, given the usual habits of the internet book market. 

At the end of my summer editorial, after evaluating Cynthia Ozick’s poetic broadside to Walter Kirn, I joked that poetry might once again be used as a universal tool of persuasion and argument. The irons were rather more heated Down Under, recently, when poet John Kinsella’s Fast Loose Beginnings: A Memoir of Intoxications set off a chain reaction of insults and, according to at least one judge, outright threats in the form of poetry, resulting in “restraining orders against two fellow poets” who are themselves threatening defamation suits. Kinsella was scheduled to read at the Byron Bay Writers Festival but was forced to cancel, fearing violent retribution from poets Anthony Lawrence and Robert Adamson, whom he describes in his book as drinking and enjoying pornographic films with him. The Brisbane Courier Mail describes what followed as a “stream of emails in verse—replete with allusions to blood, gore, and death.” Melbourne University Press, Kinsella’s publisher, adds that the book also includes “intimate portraits of Dorothy Hewett, Les Murray, American literary critic Harold Bloom and French philosopher Jacques Derrida, as they have never been seen before.” On ABC Radio National’s “The Book Show,” Kate Bochner remarked, Kinsella’s “assessment of his former friends is mean, actually. It’s not my place to speculate as to why he needed to be so unkind about them but a basic rivalry seems likely.” An Australian friend of mine commented over a pint, “It’s good to finally see some poetry biffo going on. Here we have a couple of boofy blokes leading the charge, but we’re still seeing too much chin-wagging and not enough chin-hitting. Let’s keep it going, lads!” Needless to say, I raised my glass. 

            Several concerned readers, including a Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote in about my last editorial, mistakenly thinking that I had somehow endorsed Richard Wilbur for the most recent Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Even if my opinion could sway a judge, their fear was baseless. While I am a dedicated reader of Wilbur, having reviewed his Collected Poems at length in the New York Sun, he has won twice before. Winning yet again would be a bit perverse, particularly given that the book that previously took the prize was Wilbur’s New and Collected in 1989, which contained much of the same material as his more recent Collected (his first win was in 1957 for Things of This World). While Robert Frost won the Pulitzer no fewer than four times (New Hampshire, Collected Poems, A Further Range, and A Witness Tree), anything more than two prizes seems excessive, if not vulgar. Robert Lowell won twice (Lord Weary’s Castle and The Dolphin, bookends to an epoch-making career) as did Robert Penn Warren (for Promises and Now and Then, though we should not forget that his novel All The King’s Men won for fiction) and Edwin Arlington Robinson (for Collected Poems and The Man Who Died Twice). Multiple wins may be a thing of the past, but as a betting man I would advise John Ashbery to leave another space in his trophy cabinet, as a precaution. If I personally had to choose one of the books on the table in 2006, I would have gone with Dean Young’s Elegy on a Toy Piano, which I found both moving and amusing in many ways (though at times muddled and frustrating compared with his accomplished earlier volumes). No offense intended, Ms. Emerson. 

With all best wishes, and until next time, stay warm (if you live in the Northern Hemisphere) and enjoy the coming holidays,

Ernest Hilbert

Editor, Contemporary Poetry Review


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