Letter from America: Four American Poets, Well Known and Not Quite
By David Fedo
Edgar Allan Poe, born in Boston in 1809 (and orphaned soon after), was honoured posthumously in Fall 2014 by the unveiling of a statue bearing his likeness near the historic Boston Common.
Created by Stefanie Rocknak, the statue of the poet is called "Poe Returning to Boston". The sculptured Poe is holding a briefcase that overflows with two symbols that all Poe aficionados will easily recognise: a large raven and a human heart.
Poe was a poet, a writer of detective and what might be called "horror" fiction, and a fierce critic. He lived a strange and chaotic life, and died in 1849 under uncertain circumstances (possibly alcohol-related) in Baltimore, Maryland.
Poe is still an immensely popular figure in the legacy of American literature. His weirdness – and a selective body of his work – has stood the test of time, not just in the United States but around the world.
Franz Wright, son of the gifted poet James Wright (1927–1980) and winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his extraordinary collection, Walking to Martha's Vineyard (2003), died in May of lung cancer at 62 years of age. A prominent figure in American letters, he had been ill for some time, and succumbed at his home in Waltham, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston.
In the poem which gives Walking to Martha's Vineyard its title (and in which no one is observed actually strolling to that famous island well off the coast of Massachusetts), Wright evokes an Atlantic Ocean that "smells like lilacs in late August", but confesses that the essence of nature, and of life itself, is elusive and hard to communicate:
But in this volume (as in his others), Wright's idiosyncratic verses, like his father's, do convey to the reader, in images hard to forget, a sense ("glimpses"?) of the challenges of life, of false steps, indeed of life's sometimes overwhelming burdens (we are the one known species drawn to suicide, Wright asserts in his poem "The Only Animal"), yet in his often stripped-down lyrics, with the language meticulously washed clean and ironed out, there is still the possibility of resurrection and hope. And there is beauty, too, as in "Cloudless Snowfall":
Wright was born in Vienna, Austria, and although as a result of alcoholism, drug addiction and depression he grappled with "the competing imperatives of self-annihilation and self-preservation" (Margalit Fox, The New York Times, May 16, 2015), he managed to write at least a half-dozen memorable books that, in stunningly intimate ways, won him numerous awards and recognition along with the Pulitzer. I was fortunate to hear him read at my former institution, Curry College (in Milton, Massachusetts), some 11 years ago; his sombre voice was riveting.
Walking to Martha's Vineyard and most of his other books, including God's Silence (2006), all touch in one way or another on the subject of death, with poems as wide-ranging as one on a friend's wake and another on the obliviousness of cats to the inevitability of their own deaths. But Wright was not without a sense of sardonic humour about the Grim Reaper, too, as in the poem "Translation":
Wright, like Keats, began drafting poems early as a teenager. According to Ms Fox, he mailed his first poem to his absent father. James Wright wrote back, "I'll be damned. You're a poet. Welcome to hell." Wright Sr appears to have been right, on both counts, about his precocious son. He was an enormous talent, sometimes troubled, but gone far too early.
Juan Felipe Herrera is a 66-year-old Latin-American writer both in English and Spanish, and author of numerous volumes of poetry and prose. Also an academic as well as a performance artist, he was named in June as the new US Poet Laureate (the exact honorific is "Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry"). He succeeds Natasha Trethewey, who served from 2012 to 2014, among others who have held the post in recent years, including Billy Collins, Louise Gluck, Donald Hall and Robert Pinsky – the latter a popular participant in last year's Singapore Writers Festival.
The son of Mexican parents, Herrera was the first Chicano to be named the Poet Laureate in America, for which he receives a modest stipend of US$35,000 in exchange for delivering a formal speech or two, and serving as a general cheerleader on behalf of poetry in the States. (During his own tenure, Pinsky famously initiated what was called the "Favorite Poem Project", which roused the interest of many Americans in verse to unprecedented levels.)
Herrera has lived most of his life in California, where he was born and where, years later, he served twice as Poet Laureate of that state.
I found myself surprised and a little embarrassed by the choice of Herrera, because, despite the prodigious output of his work, I knew so little about his actual writings. Another American poet, Stephen Burt, may have the answer: "He [Herrera] is not consciously ambassadorial. He doesn't stop to explain things so people who aren't Latino will understand them; he just does what he does. And trusts, correctly I think, that the language and emotional trajectories of the characters or bits of narratives in the poems will fascinate you enough that if you're interested and you don't get the references, then you can look them up" (quoted in the Los Angeles Times, June 13, 2015).
Chastened, I went to Herrera's work online and found much to admire. Two poems immediately caught my attention: "Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings" and "I Am Merely Posing for a Photograph", both stringing words into lengthy, dangling lines which somehow run seamlessly together. These remarkable poems are included in Herrera's collection, Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (2008), which is published by the University of Arizona Press, but which has protected Herrera's work "from unauthorised downloading and distribution" – so I am unable to transcribe here the complete poems.
Suffice it to say that Herrera defines a poem as "a way to attain a life without boundaries" and then offhandedly opines that "a poem, of course, is always open for business". I take this to mean that the windows into a particular poem are always open for investigation, review, amendment and enjoyment. Such an objective might also be the task of all literature and of the humanities in general, which theoretically strive to reveal worlds that otherwise would be unavailable or unknown.
"I Am Merely Posing for a Photograph" is the opening of the second poem, with the poet describing himself with an almost painful exactitude:
I am reminded of Walt Whitman's overstuffed lists, and of William Carlos Williams, whose mother was Puerto Rican, and whose seemingly breezy colloquialisms made him a favoured mentor to the many poets who followed him, Allen Ginsberg being one. Williams' dictum was no ideas but in things, which might serve as a catchword for Herrera, too. I found our new Poet Laureate to be worthy of knowing much better.
Moira Linehan, a poet who happens to live nearby (to my home) in Winchester, Massachusetts, is also worth knowing. Linehan has a steadily growing reputation with the publication of two extraordinary books that are acclaimed and honoured, and yet, like many deserving American poets, she is still somewhat under the national radar. She shouldn't be.
Many of Linehan's poems in her books, If No Moon (2006) and Incarnate Grace (2015), both published by Southern Illinois University Press and also available on Amazon, are meticulously crafted works reflecting on the loss and grief that come through illness and death.
In "Vow of Stability", an exquisitely moving meditation on her husband's dying and subsequent death, and the second of the 35 poems in If No Moon, Linehan writes:
This is an unflinchingly intimate work, and even in its own way a courageous poem. I have transcribed here the entire second (and final) stanza, which consists of lines broken by 20 commas, one colon and only one closing period. The daily caring for the beloved is bounded by domestic tasks that seem unendurable, but the poet gives us a sense that they not only sustain the dying husband but also the devoted spouse.
Two poems later, in "If No Moon", the book's title work, Linehan as poet watches her "dying lover" falling asleep and observes life outside her window – the "blood-red cardinal", "the moon at its thinnest",
And then this elegant finale:
In Linehan's uncertain world, love does matter.
In her latest book, Incarnate Grace, there are wide-ranging poems on a miscellany of subjects, including travel, especially in Ireland (I greatly admired "The Monks Who Made the Book of Kells"), a painting by Rembrandt, and wild swans and herons near her Winchester home, among others. I was also drawn by the candour of "For the Men Who Fish Along Horn Pond" ("Something about these men drew Christ," she writes, and then –
Still, the focus of the book is the poet's coming to terms with a sudden malignancy (in such poems as "Breast Cancer", "Halfway through Radiation", "Electric" and "Healing", to name a number). In addition, in "A Deep Wound", Linehan equates the wound left on the breast from cancer with the rugged land in County Kerry, Ireland:
In the poem's magical ending, Linehan asks that those souls on the land "who sleep the sleep of death" will visit her on "this grieving gray rock"; and –
In a 2014 interview with the Ghanaian poet Geosi Gyasi (published online), Linehan explains that she was informed by a physician that her lumpectomy left "the margins around what she had excised… 'clean but not ideal'." The ambiguous image of "margins" becomes a recurring motif throughout Incarnate Grace, and extends the richness of the collection well beyond the depiction of the body struggling with a cancer. Margins often impact our lives, and in her toughness, restraint and lack of sentiment – and the precision and beauty of the lines – Linehan's revelatory poems are well worth our attention.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 3 Jul 2015