Poetry

So Where Are We

“So Where Are We?” is the title poem of So Where Are We, forthcoming from FSG in August. So Where Are We? begins where Into It, my last book of poems, left off, amid the global violence unleashed by the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.

English 206

I thought I’d preface a collection of selected and new poems, Walking Backwards: Poems 1966–2016, that FSG will publish next year, with a poem that reflects on how I began writing poetry and on how it looks to me in retrospect. A few years ago I had a conversation with a very gifted younger poet in which I thoughtlessly rambled on about how much of the poetry I read by younger poets doesn’t engage me; and since then I’ve periodically tried to figure out why this might be so.

Rather than reflect on his poems or essays, which are still here for anyone to read or reread, I want to say a few words about our friendship, one whose nature, though central, is hard to capture, apparently uneventful as it was. Everything that happened happened internally.

Peter Cole and Christian Wiman

Peter Cole and Christian Wiman, two longtime friends, recently exchanged e-mails about the process of selecting their own work for their latest collections. Wiman’s book of selected poems, Hammer Is the Prayer, published by FSG in 2016, was “a stunning reminder of how this gifted poet has transformed suffering into verse that is not just the best of his life, but among the best of his generation” (The Washington Post). Peter Cole’s forthcoming Hymns & Qualms: New and Selected Poems and Translations, to be published by FSG in May, showcases the range of Cole’s work, building on his masterful translations and sharp poetry by weaving in dazzling new pieces. “It is,” says Harold Bloom, “a majestic work, a chronicle of the imaginative life of a profoundly spiritual consciousness.” Here, Cole and Wiman discuss the arrangement of collected works, the tension between life and art, and the survival of one’s own poetry.

Marianne Moore

In trying to sum up the experience of having spent the last ten years editing the poetry of Marianne Moore, most recently in the New Collected Poems, I think of a recent classroom interaction I had. Toward the end of a course on twentieth-century poetry, one of my students, clearly at the end of her patience with me, demanded to know why I kept asking them, “But what is a poem?” It’s probably a measure of how deeply I feel that question that I hadn’t noticed I’d asked it even once before she pointed it out.

John Ashberry

Two items from the poet John Ashbery’s private collections appear on the cover for The Songs We Know Best. One is a yellow card from the early 1940s that his father, Chester “Chet” Ashbery, designed to advertise goods sold by the Ashbery Farm.

FSG Poetry Month

The madness of March is past, and true to form—here in New York, at least—“lifeless in appearance, sluggish / dazed spring approaches.” What does that mean? It’s National Poetry Month! Starting today, we will regularly post new pieces related to all things poetry.

I first met Derek when I came to FSG in the mid-eighties, thirty years ago. He was in his vigorous fifties, teaching in Boston and writing the poems that would soon appear in The Arkansas Testament (1987), and, though I didn’t know it then, composing his magnum opus, Omeros, which we published in 1990.

Bill Knott

I met Bill Knott in late 1968, or in early 1969, at William Corbett’s house, a gathering place for poets in Boston’s South End. I’d read Knott’s highly acclaimed first book, The Naomi Poems, from Big Table, in the spring of 1968. It was published under the pen name Saint Geraud (1940–1966). I was immediately struck, poleaxed, by the emotional power of the poems. Mostly short, intense lyrics, they were unlike anything I’d ever read and moved me to the bone. I felt, before I’d read Emily Dickinson’s famous comment, as if the top of my head was taken off. Many were love poems. Most were written in his early and mid twenties. There was urgency, a longing, a wild and plaintive high-note sound that was maybe particularly attractive to a twenty-two-year-old man. Forty-seven years later, as I stand on the terrible threshold of senescence, Knott’s poems still lift the hairs on the back of my neck. His anguished poems about the war in Vietnam were among the first I’d read on that subject, and I still believe them to be among the strongest. It is the war that my generation either can’t forget or refuses to remember (sometimes both).

Maureen N. McLane

THREE POEMS is the brainchild of Max Freeman, Brooklyn-based poet and filmmaker. Inspired by a film of Frank O’Hara reading “Having a Coke with You,” Max invites poets over to his studio to read three poems. For Poetry Month we matched Max with FSG poet Maureen McLane.

On Courting Danger

At one point in his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke addresses the poet’s anxiety about solitude—specifically, the way in which solitude has allowed the poet to spend more time thinking about self-doubts, life’s insecurities, and a general fear and helplessness in the face of what seems unknowable.

Sailing the Forest by Robert Robertson

I love the sense of buffeting by wind, birds, trees and some enigmatic power that leaves me feeling energized in ways that cannot be named.

Selected Poems by James Schuyler

Nothing was every more astute than W.C. Williams’s “A poem is a machine made of words.” (If it sounds cold or technocratic, think of the machine as a music box or a bicycle.) Schuyler’s little machine is more intricate than it looks. When the poet is Schuyler, and when we’re in “The Payne Whitney Poems,” questions like “Is this the moment?” and “Need I persist?” may be all playful footwork – or they may be The Big Question, and fraught.

Fish

Marianne Moore’s masterpiece “The Fish” is that rare poem that enters the mind through the front door and the back door at the same time. There’s not another poem that has its cake and eats it too like “The Fish” does. It luxuriates in its absence of the human.

Wright Above the River

Often considered one of James Wright’s most optimistic poems, “Two Hangovers” is appropriately two-minded and torn. Asking for a silence it doesn’t entirely want, it finds a joy it didn’t expect.

Leviathan in the Sun: Les Murray

I first read Hamlet in Jamaica. The bleak daylight surrounding my high school Happy Grove was like the faded glow of an old photograph. Rain was expected; it never came. There might’ve been thunder, or that could just have been the pages turning in unison.

War Music

Like Ezra Pound’s Cantos, Christopher Logue’s “account” of the Iliad is an imagist epic. It is surely less various and original than its modernist precursors, but it can’t be matched for sheer pleasure. With plot and character given, Logue attends to local intensities and rhythmic development, offering us animated sequences of unfolding action.

Repair by C. K. Williams

I was introduced to C. K. Williams’s “Invisible Mending” twelve years ago when the poet read it aloud at a memorial service for one of his oldest friends, the artist Sam Maitin. His exquisitely evoked seamstresses cum fates, with their “amputating shears” and teeth that “nip away the raveled ends,” embodied our destiny and spoke to our loss. When Williams himself passed away last year, to was to this poem that I turned for solace.

Breathturn Into Timestead by Paul Celan translated by Pierre Joris

Paul Celan’s language never tires. It is constantly propelling us through the webs of images in his poems. Celan uses language to break the conventional barriers of language itself.

The Dream Songs by John Berryman

Dream Song 29 is not an obviously optimistic poem. How could it be, when it begins, “There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart / só heavy”—and immediately, any reader whose heart has ever been burdened, brought low (and it is hard to imagine a Berryman reader whose heart has not), knows: this bodes ill.