Posts Tagged ‘Poet Laureate’

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Poet of the Month: Robert Lowell

posted: 3.2.10 by archived

Born in Boston on March 1, 1917, Robert Lowell was the son of prominent New England parents. Lowell attended Harvard, Kenyon College, and Louisiana State University, where he studied with literary and critical giants like John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Allen Tate. In his twenties, Lowell converted from Episcopalianism to Catholicism. Though he later left the Church, his strong religious beliefs during this period deeply influenced his early work.

From 1947-1948 he served as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (the precursor position to the Poet Laureate). Lowell maintained a lifelong interest in history and politics—an interest that shows up in his work—and was a vigorous opponent of the Vietnam War. (During World War II, he had been jailed for conscientious objection.) His life was also dominated by emotional and marital instability—Lowell married three times—and he struggled with alcoholism. Lowell died of a heart attack in 1977 at the age of 60.

Lowell’s work is famously varied. His early books, Land of Unlikeness and Lord Weary’s Castle, were written under the influence of the New Critics with whom Lowell had studied. They display Lowell’s considerable skill in writing in traditional forms. He is most famous, however, for his 1959 book Life Studies, which was a departure from his earlier writing, and from the sort of writing that was most prominent in the world of poetry at the time. Lowell wrote loosely, without adherence to conventions, and incorporated autobiographical events heavily into his poetry. This volume is considered to have begun “confessional poetry” and altered the course of modern poetry.

A. O. Scott argues for Lowell’s enduring importance in his review of Lowell’s recently published Collected Poems:

Lowell’s story, of heretical, Promethean ambition dragged to earth and chastened, has struck a number of critics over the      years as overly melodramatic, and Lowell, since his death, has been somewhat overshadowed by less self-aggrandizing contemporaries like Elizabeth Bishop or Frank O’Hara, who neither made inordinate claims for the authority of poetry nor a big fuss when those claims proved to be untenable.

They left behind bodies of work, whereas Lowell, like Yeats and Milton and very few others, left behind the monumental narrative of a career, which may well, curiously enough, be remembered longer than any single poem he wrote. It is the entirety of that story—the saga of an audacious maker struggling with the raw materials of history, personality, and language—that gives so many of the poems their aura of courage and pathos.

Curious readers can find numerous online resources on Lowell’s life and poetry. The American Academy of Poets features a brief bio, along with a guide to confessional poetry, an overview of Lowell’s Life Studies, and numerous poems by Lowell, including recordings of Lowell reading “Skunk Hour” and “The Public Garden.” The Poetry Foundation features an extensive bio and bibliography, along with numerous poems by Lowell, as well as articles discussing his work. Recordings on the site include one of Helen Vendler discussing Lowell, one of Troy Jollimore talking about “Skunk Hour,” and one focused on “July in Washington” and politics. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux recently published Words in the Air, the complete letters between Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. (Readers interested in the relationship between these two major twentieth-century poets can read Helen Vendler’s incisive review of the volume in The New York Review of Books.) Lowell’s Paris Review interview, conducted by Frederick Seidel, is available online.

Happy Birthday, Robert Lowell!

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Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before coming to Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

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Remembering Lucille Clifton

posted: 2.23.10 by archived

Teaching Poetry mourns the loss of poet Lucille Clifton, who died on February 10 at the age of 73, after a long battle with cancer.

Clifton, perhaps best know to students for her widely-anthologized poem “homage to my hips,” was the author of numerous books of poetry as well as prose. She grew up in Buffalo, New York, the daughter of working-class African American parents, and attended Howard University.

Her poems frequently focused on the African American experience and family life, and are marked by their sparseness—Clifton usually wrote in short lines without capitalization or punctuation.

Clifton was much lauded.  She was a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; won an Emmy, a Lannan Literary Prize, and the Ruth Lilly Prize; and received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She was poet laureate of Maryland from 1974 to 1985. She won the National Book Award in 2000 for Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000.

There are numerous moving tributes to Clifton in print and all over the Internet. The New York Times featured a lengthy obituary that sums up Clifton’s life and work well. On the New Yorker’s Book Bench blog, poet Elizabeth Alexander writes a stirring remembrance of a poet she admired deeply:

No matter how elaborate the words they use, poets strive to tell elemental truths. As Clifton often reminded her acolytes, ‘truth and facts are two different things.’ Time and again, she made luminous poems premised on clear truth-telling, but always with a twist, and with space for evocation and mystery. Her style was as understated as the lowercase type of her poems, a quiet, even woman’s voice telling sometimes terrible truths. Like psalms, koans, and old folks’ proverbs, Clifton’s poems invite meditation and return.

The Poetry Foundation dedicated their Poetry Off the Shelf podcast to remembering Clifton. The American Academy of Poets main site prominently features a tribute to Clifton, and their resources on her include a recording of Clifton reading her well known “homage to my hips” and a lesson plan for teaching women poets.

The Poetry Society of America remembers Clifton on its blog. The PSA was scheduled to present Clifton with their Centennial Frost Medal on April 1. The event will serve as a tribute by other poets to Clifton’s memory.

Readers interested in learning more about Clifton can find a lengthy bio on the Poetry Foundation’s site, alongside a number of her poems that appeared in that magazine, and audio recordings of “praise song” and “why won’t you celebrate with me.”

Rest in peace, Lucille Clifton.

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Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before coming to Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

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Poetry Speaks! Now Online

posted: 12.14.09 by archived

Reading poetry aloud in the classroom is a great idea. Sometimes, however, you ask for volunteers to read and get…total silence. Sometimes even students who are willing to read don’t do the poem justice. Sometimes you have bronchitis. Luckily, PoetrySpeaks.com is here to help.

PoetrySpeaks.com, officially launched November 4, 2009, aims to “create a space where poetry can be discovered and rediscovered.” The brains behind it, Dominique Raccah,  is the founder of Sourcebooks, Inc. and the publisher of the New York Times bestseller Poetry Speaks, (the book), which included three audio CDs of poets reading their work. From the success of that book, she knew she had the fan-base to support the Web site. Online, she’s able to provide many more audio and video resources that foster interest in reading, writing, and listening to poetry.

The site, in the works since 2005, is always adding new features and content. It’s also been developing alliances in the poetry and performance work. A few publishers (Naxos AudioBooks, Tupelo Press, Marick Press) have partnered with the site, and its advisory board includes Anne Halsey from the Poetry Foundation, Bruce George, co-founder of Def Poetry Jam (HBO), and Robert Pinsky, former poet laureate of the United States.

The site has three main sections: PS Voices, which has text and audio for poems by well-known poets (some read by the poets themselves); SpokenWord, devoted to slam poetry; and YourMic, which allows user-poets to upload and share audio and video files of themselves reading their own works. Right now, the site features a short poetry film called “The Captain,” which features the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, read by Allison Janney (one of my favorites!). You can watch the film and read the poem here.

The site also has a PoetryMatters blog and a Poetry Store.

Yes, a poetry store. Of course, there are plenty of places online to post text, audio, and video files of poetry. PoetrySpeaks.com, however, charges for poems: You can buy the text, the audio, the video, or a combination package. And your payment helps to directly support the poet. The set-up is similar to iTunes: a 30-second professional audio recording is free, but the whole poem in MP3 format is 99 cents. (A recording of “The Raven” is nine minutes long; “Ozymandias” is only one minute, forty seconds; both cost 99 cents.) If paying for poetry makes you balk, think of it as breaking the tired-out tradition of the penniless poet.

Do you like to use recordings of poetry in your classes, or do you prefer live readings? Would you consider asking your students to post their own poetry on a site like this?  What other resources could a site like PoetrySpeaks.com provide?

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Categories: Creative Writing, Joelle Hann (moderator), Literature, Popular Culture
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Kay Ryan, Poet of the Month

posted: 9.21.09 by archived

by Andrew Flynn

Kay Ryan, the US Poet Laureate, turns 64 today.

Ryan is not a household name—not even a poet’s household name until quite recently—and her journey to the Library of Congress does not follow the course of a typical literary career. “It feels very unlikely,” Ryan told Charlie Rose in an interview last November. “I hadn’t ever expected this to happen to me.”

She grew up the daughter of an oil-well driller in the San Joaquin Valley in the 40s and 50s, in a working-class culture that did not welcome the pretensions of poetry. Her adult life has been spent teaching writing—but not of the MFA variety. Since the 1970s she’s taught remedial English classes at the College of Marin, her local community college. She lives in a house she shingled herself, is an avid runner, and has never taken a creative writing class. Carol Adair, Ryan’s fellow teacher at Marin and longtime partner, died earlier this year. Ryan wrote about their relationship and marriage in Salon.

Ryan’s success came later in life. Her early works attracted little notice. The first published essay on Ryan’s work appeared little more than a decade ago—but its author, poet and critic, Dana Gioia, proclaimed her achievements in no uncertain terms. “Over the past five years,” Gioia begins, “no new poet has so deeply impressed me with her imaginative flair or originality as Kay Ryan.” Gioia, who became Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, also became a champion of Ryan’s poetry. The last ten years have marked a rise to prominence for Ryan, with highlights including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001, the eminent Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2004, and appointment as Poet Laureate of the United States in 2008.

It only takes one poem to show Ryan’s unique style. Her poems are short, sometimes funny, almost always accessible, yet rich and complex. Analyzing the internal wordplay of “Paired Things,” Dana Gioia picked out the hallmarks of a Ryan poem: “dense figurative language, varied diction, internal rhyme, the interrogative mode, and playful, which elusively alternates between iambic and unmetered lines.”

Paired Things

So many paired things seem odd.
Who ever would have dreamed
the broad winged raven of despair
would quit the air and go
bandylegged upon the ground, a common crow?

“[C]lown suitcase” is her own description of her poetry. “[T]he clown flips open the suitcase and pulls out a ton of stuff,” she said in her Paris Review interview. “A poem is an empty suitcase that you can never quit emptying.” She’s balked at Gioia’s Dickinson comparison—“[H]ow would you like to be compared to God?”

Adam Kirsch wrote in praise of Ryan’s appointment as Poet Laureate, commending her “diffidence and self-sufficiency” and her “dark vision and metaphysical scope,” offering an incisive reading of Ryan’s poem “Chop”:

Here are the short lines, plain diction, and buried assonances—”sharp/chop,” “step/stamp”—that define Ms. Ryan’s verse. But once you ponder the miniature allegory of “Chop,” that homely music starts to look desperately ironic. For Ms. Ryan’s bird is an emblem of man in his arrogant mortality.

Something similar could be said about much of Ryan’s work.

The Library of Congress has aggregated the wealth of resources about Ryan available on the Internet, including essays, interviews, and recordings of readings. If you’ve never read Kay Ryan before, she’s worth discovering. If you don’t read much poetry, she’s still discoverable.

Activity:
Kay Ryan is noted for her frequent use of recombinant, or internal, rhyme. (See, for instance, “four-oared” and “afford” in “Turtle.”) How is the effect of internal rhymes different than traditional, end-of-the-line rhymes? Why does Ryan seem to use internal rhyme in “Turtle”? For example, how does internal rhyme add emphasis to certain images or change meaning?

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Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before coming to Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

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