Dawn Potter has been nominated for Pushcart Prize for her poem “The Testimony of Various Witnesses”
Wanda Praisner has received two more Pushcart Prize nominations and received an Honorable Mention in the 2014 Poets Prize
Dawn Potter has been nominated for Pushcart Prize for her poem “The Testimony of Various Witnesses”
Wanda Praisner has received two more Pushcart Prize nominations and received an Honorable Mention in the 2014 Poets Prize
On April 6th, CavanKerry and Hoboken Historical Museum hosted “Something Old, Something New (Jersey),” an afternoon of poetry to celebrate the state’s 350 birthday.
The event was a great success and thank you to everyone who came out!
There is so much to love about this book (Spooky Action at a Distance). I particularly loved the title poem and “Postcards.” I don’t usually think of divorce poems as beautiful, but yours are. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the evolution of this book and/or of those poems.
First of all, thank you. My first book with CavanKerry, A Day This Lit, sort of balanced on the question, at least to my mind, if art and the imagination could be a solution, a satisfying and palpable solution, to isolation. And I think that this book comes from the recognition that it cannot, that the only thing that solves isolation is connection, human connection. A year after A Day This Lit came out was 9/11. I worked on the 105th floor of the South tower and I lost some people very close to me. While I was not there that day, much dissolved in my life, my long marriage, for one, and I came to realize the utter necessity of finding connection. If the divorce poems work at all, it is because confusion is as much a residue as pain, loss, anger, all the usual suspects, and I tried to imagine the many forms that the confusion can take.
In your poem, “#9, Again,” you wrote:
I write poems because life flopped, flops
and always will. It has vast empty spaces,
monumental plazas between limitless particulars
where we hope to discover, but never do,
harmony or justice, order
(all those place names for love)
and art believes it can fill those spaces with what
we have a surfeit of—yearning . . .
Does that sum up your feelings about why we write poems?
Yes and no. I think we can all imagine a better world, a world we want to live in, and so those of us lucky enough to feel and be creative, desire to make that world. So poetry can be an implicit criticism of life, but it is also an upwelling, a birdsong, an announcement of presence and another example of the shining of life just shining through.
In “The Back Channels,” you begin:
I love the scene that cannot be seen,
the dialogue that cannot be heard,
the dialogue always denied
and admitted only because it succeeded
or is published in some memoir.
I love that opening. I was wondering if you talk a little bit about that poem.
When one decides that he or she wants to change one’s life, there is a lot of negotiation that has to go on. The outside negotiations are relatively easy, it is the negotiations with oneself that are brutal. And those negotiations are always in secret; while you can sometimes tell your friends data, it is extremely difficult to tell them structure, how the various parts of the self are reacting to the change. So I was reading some article about something in the Middle East and the back channels of communication that have to go on and yet have to be denied and I thought how powerful back channels are in the world and in the architecture of the self.
Another poem I admire is “Three Wishes in Worcester, Mass.” I think this could have been written about many American cities including Youngstown, Ohio. Did you actually think of a Chinese poem when looking at Worcester, as the poem suggests?
I went to college in Worcester and, about 6 or 7 years ago, I gave a reading there in the evening. As I was driving out on a coal black night, I went through a particularly barren and burnt-out section. I had graduated from college about 40 years ago and I think I was feeling loss for all the years that were gone and the loss seemed to be embodied in that section of Worcester. And as I felt it, I also wanted it to go away a second later, that is, I wanted it to be evanescent. And one or two thoughts later, the briefness of Chinese and Japanese poetry came to me and the poem was off and running. Surprisingly, I did not miss the entrance to the Interstate that I was searching for.
I read in your bio that you have worked in museums. How have other art forms influenced your poetry?
Yes, I taught perception in museums in New York City and New York State, that is, how to see line, color, shape, all the visual elements in painting and sculpture, so I think I have been better trained than most in seeing what is in front of me rather than naming what is in front of me. So I would hope that the imagery in my work feels really seen to the reader, that I am not sloppy in my metaphors and similes. Interestingly, in my first book, music plays a vital role in the poems, especially Mozart.
Tell me a little bit about how your writing process? How you compose a poem? How you order a book of poems?
That is hard because I don’t really have one. I usually begin writing by reading poetry, I find I need that to begin to shift how I am thinking about language. And some days, a line or a series of lines will come to me. I write them down, and in writing them, I seem to see whether or not they have any real life to them. Mostly, they don’t, but if they do, I just keep going. I try not to censor anything until I have maybe half a page and then I start to see if I can make a poem. Most of the early stuff goes and new directions start to sprout. It takes, normally, for a rather short poem, about 3 or 4 months for me to have something that might survive.
How I order a book of poems? I ask friends, because I have almost no idea. For this book, my friend Baron Wormser helped me immeasurably.
What is the biggest challenge for you as a poet? What do you love and hate the most about being a poet?
The biggest challenge is silence, the willingness of the self, myself, to hide in the tundra. What I love and hate most is the same thing – the unbelievably hard work of doing this. I am jealous of friends that are painters and dancers, whose work makes them move. I sit in front of the white paper or the white screen of the computer (when revising), I sit in absolute silence since I am concentrating so much on the music of the line, and I try to pull stuff out of me. That is hard and hateful, but when I do get something, particularly an image that is utterly new, I am so at the top of the world.
What inspires you? Who are your primary literary influences?
I think, as you can tell from a number of poems with that location, I am really inspired by the beach. There is nothing that does not awe me at the beach and I think the beach puts me in touch with the forces in me that want to enlarge, that want to exult in the gift of life and particularly the gift of consciousness.
As a public school child in the 1950’s, my introductions to poetry were 19th century poems and I hated poetry. I couldn’t understand the grammatical inversions and felt that it had nothing to say to me. But when, in college, I got to read William Carlos Williams and then Frank O’Hara, poets who wanted to write as we spoke, I thought that poetry might become important to me. I don’t know that I have particular influences. I think there is nothing radical in my style and many American poets of the 50s that began to work out the poetics of the every day are my progenitors.
What is your writing process like? Do you have rituals? Are there certain times of day that you write?
Nope, no rituals. When I am really caught in a poem, I work on it almost continuously. On the subway on the way to work is one of my favorite times. I think the rhythm of the train helps me and you are never more in your own box when you are on a crowded subway.
I’d love to close with a poem of your choice.
One of the poems I most enjoy in the book is “The Steam of Tea” because I feel that I found myself in a bit of a corner through the opening and into the middle of the poem and worked very hard to find the real poem that was inside.
The Steam of Tea
a pot of tea
that usual restaurant white ceramic
with the single restrained dark green equator
in the spread yellow sunlight
of the February morning
centers the table with its heat
as she remembers and tells him
of her father, a pilot,
taking her at twelve to Paris
how up on the Trocadero
in the plaza of the Musee De L’Homme
looking down on the Eiffel Tower
he suddenly took her wrists
twirled her so fast
that she became a straight line out
and she learned
what he wanted her to learn:
her complete freedom in the air
and how that brought her
to a sumptuous freedom on the ground.
Across the table, he listens to her
and looks behind her
out the window at the rusted
railroad bridge over the river
that drains, just here, into the bay.
This is the ramshackle part of town
old pilings, dilapidated docks,
the broken hulk of a ferry
that gives weight
to his falling in love in February.
“I sometimes, and unoriginally, surmise that the affiliation of poets with the academy has deprived too many of us of a wider world to render. Howard Levy, poet, but also a businessman, shows awareness of realms less confined than those of much current verse. He can be heartbreakingly tender… and truly cosmopolitan. But it’s not a matter or either-or: the private poems have a salty dose of the worldly, just as the poems of apparently broader scope have the bittersweet, mixed savor of personal dejection and aspiration…. a mastery that Levy exerts as if without effort.” – Sydney Lea
Connection and isolation are the twin poles between which Howard Levy navigates in the luminous poems in his second collection, SPOOKY ACTION AT A DISTANCE (CavanKerry Press; April 2014; $16.00, paperback). A poet grounded in the real world and tethered to landscapes both earthly and temporal, Levy here explores the human need for emotional and physical bonds, and the journey from loneliness and seclusion to attachment and fulfillment. “Howard Levy’s remarkable second book chronicles the human struggle to overcome the often vast emotional distances between people, between the self and the world, and even between oneself and one’s own life,” says Jefffrey Harrison. “The collection’s final poems not only glimpse the world’s splendor but ‘offer it up as the heart and grace of love.’”
Levy’s masterful use of imagery and razor-sharp perception guide the poems—which, fittingly, begin with rain and end with light arriving through a break in the clouds, “pouring into all five senses.” En route they visit the shared stuff of human experience: dreams and wakefulness, illness and death, “morning’s squadrons of fog” on the ocean or moonlight illuminating the pictures in a child’s nighttime sanctuary. With poignancy he traces the arc of time, remembering his father—
when I find this picture after his death,
I am thrilled and proud,
drinker of élan,
impresario of life,
— or his son, at four, asleep at the circus: “So confident, he works without a net.” He writes, too, of the cycle of seasons along the coast, or a northward journey across Europe, underscoring the inevitable, unstoppable forward motion of life’s passage.
The title poem takes its name from a phrase coined by Einstein in a critique of the Copenhagen theory, here deftly transformed into a central metaphor for the love between two people and the connection that impels us to embrace both joy and pain.
It is this way: men and women
spin. Hundreds of miles apart, thousands
of miles, the speed of light, it will make no difference….
And Einstein, could he admit
that love would be fast enough,
that this “spooky action at a distance”
is not necessarily paradox,
that these two influence simply in their being,
taken in to each other and separate,
separate and taken in.
An accomplished collection of exquisitely wrought, deceptively quiet poems, SPOOKY ACTION AT A DISTANCE reaffirms Howard Levy ‘s talents, and underscores the words Baron Wormser wrote of his first collection, A Day This Lit: “The common note threading the poems is an unabashed humanity, a willingness to look scrupulously and yet rejoice in the small and large mysteries.”
On April 6, 2014, the Hoboken Historical Museum was abuzz. One hundred people crowded the exhibit floor, overflowing the chairs and standing wherever a space could be found. What brought so many people out on a beautiful Sunday afternoon? A poetry reading, organized by CavanKerry Press and funded by the New Jersey Historical Commission.
But “Something Old, Something (New) Jersey” was more than a typical poetry reading, as suggested by its poster which included Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams as readers. As part of the commemoration of the 350th anniversary of New Jersey taking place throughout 2014 (https://officialnj350.com/), this event had contemporary NJ poets reading the works of iconic NJ poets and then pieces they wrote that were inspired by these icons. Two living iconic poets, Alicia Ostriker and Herschel Silverman, read their own works.
As this suggests, New Jersey has an impressive legacy of poetry that dates back to the colonial period with the work of Philip Freneau (1752-1832), whose politically themed poems earned him the sobriquet “poet of the Revolution.” But when most people think about the importance of New Jersey, they probably think of Washington crossing the Delaware or the invention of the light bulb, movies, and sound recording technology, rather than poetry. As a historian, I’m interested in two related questions: why are there so many poets from New Jersey? And why doesn’t anyone associate poetry with New Jersey?
One answer to the first question has to do with New Jersey’s unique history, which has made it, without exaggeration, one of the most diverse places in the U.S. since its founding. If we look back to that founding moment in 1664, we see how diversity became part of our state. The British crown took New Jersey from the Dutch and split the territory in half. The east half, really the shore and South Jersey, was given to Sir George Carteret and the west half to Lord John Berkeley. They wrote the “Concessions and Agreement,” which provided freedom of religion in the colony of New Jersey, making it quite different from other colonies, like Massachusetts, which was extremely intolerant in terms of religious ideas. Because New Jersey allowed its settlers to have religious freedom—which equated with political freedom in those days—it drew diverse peoples to it. Also, Berkeley and Carteret sold land at low prices to encourage people to settle there bringing a variety of classes to the colony.
In addition to that diversity, New Jersey is a small, crowded state. Although in the 2nd half of the 19th century, New Jersey sank in terms of its rank by population, by the 1920s, this was reversed, suggesting the importance of immigration, industrialization, the Great Migration, and suburbanization on the state. Now, of course, New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the U.S., with a higher population density than India or China, suggesting how tightly packed in we all are.
Diversity plus density means that we’re constantly rubbing shoulders with people who think differently than we do. New ideas are being created, challenged, and modified, which is perhaps part of the reason New Jersey has been home to so many inventions. That diversity means, very literally, that there are lots of languages, dialects, accents, and ways of speaking which have inspired poets like William Carlos Williams, from Rutherford, immeasurably.
Think of Walt Whitman, who spent the last part of his life in Camden. His writing is full of the flavor of diverse peoples and voices, which is why he’s cited as the poet of democracy. While he lived in Camden he wrote a prose piece called “Scenes on Ferry and River-Last Winter’s Nights” (1891) that captures the feel of the Camden ferry through its people. “Mothers with bevie of daughters, (a charming sight)—children, countrymen—the railroad men in their blue clothes and caps—all the various characters of city and country represented or suggested. Then outside some belated passenger frantically running, jumping after the boat….Inside the reception room, business bargains, flirting, love-making, eclaircissements, proposals—pleasant, sober-faced Phil coming in with his burden of afternoon papers—or Jo, or Charley (who jump’d in the dock last week, and saved a stout lady from drowning,) to replenish the stove, after clearing it with long crow-bar poker.” That diversity of people leads Whitman and so many other NJ poets, to an empathetic interest in their stories and lives.
But it would not be very New Jersey to only focus on the positive. Packing lots of people into a small space causes conflict, too. New Jersey’s poets have been at the forefront of analyzing those conflicts as a way to push our understanding of social structures, examining with razor-precision how we treat the working class and people of color and asking who has power and who does not—and what we can do about it. Amiri Baraka, the Newark poet, was a master at this, but so was another poet from New Jersey, Ntozake Shange. Shange, best known for her choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, was born as Paulette Williams in Trenton. Although she left Trenton when she was eight, her experience of growing up in that industrial city, especially in a middle-class black family, shaped her unflinching perspective that so beautifully connects race, gender and sexuality using a language infused by jazz in its riffing and improvisation. As in this piece, “Blood Rhythms, Blood Currents, Black n Blue Stylin’”
we gonna take this
new city neon light
volumes for million to hear
to love themselves
enough to turn back the pulse of a whippin’ history
make it carry the modern black melody from L.A.
to downtown Newark City
freedom is the way we walk that walk
talk that talk
Such musicality of language shapes our musician-poets, too. I had the pleasure of being in a session led by Robert Pinsky on poetry and democracy for teachers a few years ago. One of them asked how to get boys interested in poetry and he recalled that when he was a young man he didn’t love poetry. He loved rock music. Lyrics were his first poems. Add to that the poetry of rap music (which one could argue began in Englewood with Sugar Hill Records) and now New Jersey’s poetry legacy has grown even richer—and become even more expansive.
Who else has captured the pathos of working-class New Jersey better than Bruce Springsteen? I remember being in 10th grade English class at Middletown South High School when my teacher Mr. Lynn had us analyze the lyrics to “Born to Run” as poetry. He was right, of course. Springsteen speaks to our more recent New Jersey, one in which the shift from an industrial economy to a postindustrial one combined with the rise of middle-class suburbs meant that the opportunities that had existed for working-class men and women that had existed during New Jersey’s “glory days” in the mid 20th century were ending. To take Camden, again, as an example, the city was once home to Campbell’s Soup’s manufacturing facilities, RCA-Victor, and New York shipbuilding. They are all gone and it is struggling to figure out what’s next.
Why Doesn’t Anyone Realize New Jersey’s Poetry Legacy?
Like Ben Franklin said, New Jersey is a keg tapped at both ends, with New York and Philadelphia draining us. Patti Smith, the punk poet from Woodbury, left NJ and helped create an art movement for disaffected youth everywhere. A poet like Allen Ginsberg, born in Newark, left New Jersey to join the beat movement and then the counterculture in New York and California. Ginsburg used New Jersey in his poetry, but also clearly suggested that he saw it as a place of dead ends. In “Howl” he describes those “who vanished into nowhere Zen New Jersey leaving a trail of ambiguous picture postcards of Atlantic City Hall, suffering Eastern sweats and Tangerian bone-grindings and migraines of China under junk-withdrawal in Newark’s bleak furnished room.” New Jersey can inspire, but its smallness can also be a limitation.
But I don’t think that we should be disappointed by the fact that few people realize what New Jersey has given the world in terms of poetry. When we talk about great American poetry, so much of the time we’re talking about poets from New Jersey. That’s because New Jersey is really America writ small. For this reason, New Jersey has had an influence on poetry well beyond what its small size would suggest because America can be found in our borders. Our poetry is America’s poetry.
And it’s not just a legacy. Poetry is a living, breathing thing in New Jersey today, with poets from Alicia Ostriker to Steven Dunn to Rachel Hadas to Peter Murphy, to CavanKerry’s amazing roster of poets, keeping these traditions alive.
On this point, let me close with an image from a poet who currently works in New Jersey, Tracy Smith, at Princeton University, from her Pulitzer winning collection Life on Mars. What I love about these lines is how she describes the universe as a small, deeply connected community. To me, that also describes the poetry community we have in our state and why New Jersey will always be a home for poetry:
Sometimes, what I see is a library in a rural community.
All the tall shelves in the big open room. And the pencils
In a cup at Circulation, gnawed on by the entire population.
The books have lived here all along, belonging
For weeks at a time to one or another in the brief sequence
Of family names, speaking (at night mostly) to a face,
A pair of eyes.
— Mary Rizzo (@rizzo_pubhist) April 6, 2014
Shira Dentz, NYU Bookstore (726 Broadway, NY, NY)
Tuesday, April 8th, 6:30pm – 7:30pm
Poetry/Prose Reading with Shira Dentz, Sandy Florian, and Lucy Ives
Visit NYU Bookstore for more info
Dawn Potter, Plunkett Poetry Festival (University of Maine at Augusta)
Saturday, April 12th, 11:30 a.m.
Dawn will participate in a panel on poetry and education.
For more info visit University of Maine
At the New Jersey Poetry Out Loud state finals, which took place on March 15 in the Victoria Theater at NJ Performing Arts Center, I was sitting in front of a group that clapped and cheered loudly whenever Lawrence High School student Natasha Vargas finished reciting a poem. When Natasha was named the 2014 NJPOL champion, this group jumped out of their seats and clapped and cheered and yelled Natasha’s name. Turned out this wonderfully supportive group included some of Natasha’s fellow students and Kathryn Henderson, her teacher. At the conclusion of the event I turned around and gave, with great pleasure, more good news to the already beaming Ms. Henderson: based on Natasha’s win, she had won a scholarship, provided by CavanKerry Press, to the Conference on Poetry and Teaching at the Frost Place in Franconia, NH.
Kathryn Henderson has been a teacher for 8 years. She teaches AP Literature and a variety of English classes, grades 10-12. She is “a total Whitmaniac” who takes the time to “revisit “Song of Myself” and the rest of Leaves of Grass often.” She has “a soft spot for Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.””
Based on her choices of poets/poems alone, I’m looking forward to getting to know her better at Frost Place! -Teresa Carson, Associate Publisher
How did you get involved with Poetry Out Loud?
Six years ago, I received a Poetry Out Loud email almost by accident. Somehow a POL registration message made it onto a mass email list from The College of New Jersey, and as a participant of TCNJ’s Teachers as Scholars program, I was on the email list. I read about the program and contacted my supervisor, Barbara Beers, and said, “We HAVE to do this!” She wholeheartedly agreed.
How many Lawrence High School students participated in POL? Tell me a bit about the students who participated.
This was our school’s fifth year of involvement in the program. It is a huge event in the school, with approximately 800 students participating in the classroom level every year. Participation is all-inclusive, and the students who make it to the school-wide competition are representative of Lawrence High School’s remarkable diversity. One of my favorite moments actually happened during our first year in the program. At the school competition, the girl who finished in fourth place had emigrated from Poland a year ago and was just learning to speak English. Her poise and elocution were remarkable, especially for what was essentially a brand new language for her.
What value is added to your students’ experience of poetry by participating in POL?
I credit the POL program almost entirely for the students’ new-found love of poetry. The program dismantles a lot of assumptions and apprehension that students tend to have about poetry. They realize that poetry is accessible, personal, and powerful. While many of the students gravitate towards contemporary poetry, the program has also enriched their relationship with the classics — particularly the Romantic and Harlem Renaissance poets.
What value is added to your experience of teaching poetry?
I tell kids that the POL classroom, grade-level, and school competitions are my “real Christmas.” It is such a treat to see students excited about poetry, and so supportive of each other. Lawrence kids are by nature quite compassionate and nonjudgmental, but I’m still always impressed by how much the students rally around each other at every level of the competition. The faculty — across every subject area — is also highly invested in the program. So for me, POL has transformed poetry from a private experience to a communal event, and it has made poetry instruction not just a cerebral exercise, but an emotional one.
How did you help Natasha prepare for the competition at the school/regional/state level?
Natasha is very talented when it comes to the spoken and written word, but she is also a humble and diligent student who is always trying to improve herself. So, at the school level, she didn’t need much assistance from me! She knew that she wanted to challenge herself with difficult poems that would require some intensive reading. I helped her create phrasing in what is essentially a “grammarless” poem (Jack Collum’s “Ecology”), and we discussed some of the more cryptic ideas in the poem. We followed a similar pattern with “Thoughtless Cruelty” and, later, “A Locked House”. I believe that having thorough, thoughtful discussions about literature is the best vehicle for learning, so that is chiefly what we did. However, these have been Natasha’s poems from start to finish: she searched for them, she visualized them, and she internalized them. Her participation in the program is exemplary of what good poetry does: it makes the students read more deeply and more critically.
What were the highlights of your POL experience at the regional competition and at the state finals?
Watching the impressive talent at both levels of the competition is absolutely inspiring. Natasha noted the same thing. Everybody — competitors, teachers, students, parents, program coordinators — derive such evident enjoyment from the experience. I also love that such nice venues open their doors to the program. Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ is turning into a regular destination, and it’s a delight every year. And, as far as the competitions providing a role model for the students, I have two words: Lamont Dixon.
What advice or thoughts would you offer teachers who want to get their students involved in POL?
The goal at Lawrence High has been to make Poetry Out Loud a yearly cultural phenomenon for the entire school. That vision has been fulfilled because of the passionate student and teacher “buy-in”. For the students, all you need to do is expose them to the poetry database and videos on the website, and they’ll be hooked. For the teachers, invite colleagues to help judge some classroom competitions, and they’ll be hooked. The talent and dedication of the students are the real driving force behind the program; the kids will make it a success.
Based on Natasha’s success at the state finals, you were awarded the scholarship to the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. How do you feel about winning this scholarship?
It is an honor and privilege, and I’m so excited to be attending! I didn’t know that this prize was being offered, so it was yet another bright moment in an already great day.
Shira Dentz, Sage College (Troy, NYU
Tuesday, April 1st, 7pm
Shira will be on a panel on “Poetry and Community”
For more info visit Sage College
Shira Dentz, Ada Books (717 Westminster St., Providence)
Saturday, April 5th, 6pm
Shira will be reading with Sandy Florian
For more info visit Ada Books
Having a conversation with my friend Joel Lewis about poetry is like having a conversation with an encyclopedia. He may start off with William Carlos Williams, as he does in this piece, but within a few sentences, as he does in this piece, he’ll have also covered Robert Lowell’s Life Studies; T.S. Eliot’s Christianity, and the politics of the main Modernists. And he always manages to throw in something or someone that sends me scurrying to Wikipedia—e.g. in this piece “Mayakovsky.” He peppers every conversation with, “Do you know such-and-such poet?” Many times I don’t and many times Joel’s enthusiasm sends me in search of such-and-such poet. What a gift: to have a friend who sends you in search of poetry.
Joel has published five books of poetry, the latest being North River Rundown, and edited an anthology of NJ Poets, the selected talks of Ted Berrigan and the selected poems of Walter Lowenfels. A social worker for more than twenty years, he is a victim’s advocate with the Special Victims Bureau at the Richmond City DA and wears colorful ties to work.
By the way, William Carlos Williams’ home, at 9 Ridge Road in Rutherford, is still standing.
-Teresa Carson, Associate Publisher
I was talking recently to a young poet fully engaged in the writing life. She edits a magazine, is starting a book press, won a grant to research at the Mandeville Poetry Collection at UC/San Diego, reads all over the place and collects the mimeo books and magazines from the era of my days as a “young poet.”
This young poet was telling me that she finally got around to reading William Carlos Williams. “So, what did you think? “I asked her. “Well, I was a little disappointed. His work looks a lot like the stuff you see in magazines today.”
The pervasive influence of WCW’s work on contemporary poetry makes it hard for poets under 40 to realize what a sea change has occurred in American poetry since the 1960s. Up until that point, most poetry published in the “serious” magazines and presses were metrically formal and usually rhymed. Open forms (then more commonly called free verse) were associated with beatnik/bohemian verse and a strain of left-wing poetry influenced by Whitman and Mayakovsky and, therefore, considered of marginal interest in the mainstream and in the academy.
The 1959 publication of Robert Lowell’s WCW influenced Life Notes created a seismic shift in mainstream poetry. In the next few years, accomplished formalist poets such as James Wright, Adrienne Rich, W.S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell and Robert Bly begin writing their poems in open forms. The disciple of Williams – Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and David Igniatow—became major forces in the poetry world. The Objectivists – who were comrades of Williams in the 30s and had since languished in obscurity – were rediscovered and began publishing once again.
Williams also spoke to a new generation’s sensibilities. Unlike the formal Christianity of Eliot and many of his circle, Williams was firmly secular and, as a doctor, put his money on science. Unlike the conservative politics of his fellow Modernists (fascist Ezra Pound, FDR-hating Marianne Moore and ur-Republican Wallace Stevens), Williams was politically liberal with an uncommon sympathy for the poor. And unlike the doctors of his day, he even supported what was then called “Socialized Medicine” — a first cousin to today’s Obamacare.
Williams was also the first major American poet whose home language was not English. Although his father was born in the UK, he had spent much time in the Caribbean and spoke Spanish to his Puerto Rican born wife and his mother-in-law who lived with them. What his frenemey Wallace Stevens called “the antipoetic” in his poetry was actually WCW’s intentional decision to use demotic language and illuminate the quotidian world much in the way that the painters of the Ashcan School and his friends Charles Demuth, John Marin and Charles Sheeler were doing.
William’s poetry also contains multitudes. Poets as different as Robert Pinsky, Allen Ginsberg and Clark Coolidge all claim him as a poetic mentor. Both the American “plain-style” poetry and the Language poets find in his work a starting point in their practices.
Williams also wrote in multiple genres. His short stories, arguably, have been read more frequently as their brevity finds them often included in high school and college anthologies. The story “The Use of Force” is the standard work to teach a psychoanalytic approach to literature. His unique book of essays, “In the American Grain”, continues to influence those attempting a more personal approach to historical writing. His writings on art are invaluable to students of American Modernism. His masterwork Paterson is the grandpa of the documentary poetry. His play Many Loves ran for a year Off-Broadway and was staged by the Living Theater.
Did I mention that he also wrote five novels, a bunch of unclassifiable experimental texts, many literary essays and reviews and an opera? He also translated from the Spanish, French, Latin and the Chinese. He did all this while being head of obstetrics at Paterson General and maintaining medical offices in Passaic and in his home in Rutherford.
Although all of WCW’s work is in print (thanks to his long time publisher New Directions) and mostly in paperback, I suspect many poets only scratch the surface with his poetry and are mostly familiar with his “anthology” pieces or maybe only have his selected poems (often a used copy of the edition that Randall Jarrell edited that favors less demanding poems). Poets looking into the “edgier” Williams should look to the book Imaginations that collects his most experimental work. The best selected available is the edition edited by Robert Pinsky that includes lesser-known but unique examples of his art. What would be most useful would be a new edition of the WCW Reader. M.L.Rosenthal edited such a book in the mid-60s, but there is a need for an edition that will appeal to modern taste and current critical sensibilities.
And as a final note: until a few years ago, the only easily available recording of WCW reading his poetry was the Caedmon album, recorded after he had a serious stroke that affected his speaking. The folks at PENN SOUND (http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/) have hours of WCW at their site, with some of the recordings going back to the early 40s. Given the popularity of poetry recordings among younger poets, this is a great opportunity to hear the Doctor sound out poems that may have accrued the goo of familiarity and hear them in a more germinal form.