In celebration of the upcoming 100th anniversary of Charles Olson’s birth, Poets House is currently hosting an exhibit composed of prints of Olson’s poems and a large selection of his books.
Charles Olson was a Herculean figure in mid-century, American poetry. Immense in stature, wide-scoped, dauntless, “and possessed of an alphabet / before the Greeks”, Olson wielded all of the data that fell within his vast reach to architect his poetry. As his essay, “Projective Verse”, explained, his poems proceeded from his breath, becoming an effect of the body. Here collected are a number of rare Olsonic texts; view their typography and understand what it meant to compose by field.
- Joseph Fritsch, Anna Hezel, and Jon Picco
Ever since the seventh grade when it was demanded that I “take this kiss upon the brow,” I have possessed an undeniable devotion to poetry. You see, writing has always been my medium of choice when it comes to self expression (unlike dance and painting – my other outlets, writing can be done anywhere, anytime). Poetry always served me best because it allowed me to write free of inhibition. Stories demanded plot arcs, climactic revelations, and surprise cliffhanger endings (it was a dream!) all welded by the strength of a hero. Articles demanded exposure, fact, and an authoritative tone that I never seemed to possess. And essays, well, they reveled in the five paragraph format with meticulous, I-read-this-five-times, proofread punctuation.
Poetry freed me of all of this restraint. A poem can have one or one hundred characters, ranging from a forgotten lover to the sound of the leaves in fall. It can be written entirely free of punctuation or even a title if that is what the author decides. A poem about a flower can actually be written in the shape of a flower, using metaphor for the petals and scattering alliteration along the stem. Poetry demands nothing of its writer except creativity.
As a young teen I also used to favor diaries, an adolescent storage space for my secret thoughts (which at that time consisted of a crush on my science partner and my dislike of my Spanish teacher’s shoes). Yet, the company of an over-curious brother and my tendency to misplace things made this a difficult possession. Poetry, with its linguistic freedom that implores the use of metaphor and simile, offered me abstraction. I once wrote an entire poem about a family member, which he accidentally read and never even knew he was its primary subject because I compared him to an apple (thank you, Sylvia Plath). There you have it, poetry = abstraction. Poetry allows me to disguise my writing so that I can write freely, releasing my mind and creativity.
Poetry is not only my confidante, but also my greatest representative, ensuring that I appear graceful, eloquent and well-composed at all times. To give you an example, say one day I get really mad at my friend because she keeps borrowing my clothing without asking and always ruins whatever she borrows, I might want to vent about my anger by writing down what and how I feel. A diary entry might produce something like: “Dear diary, I don’t know why Jessica keeps borrowing my clothes without asking. I have told her a billion times not to borrow my clothing because she NEVER takes care of it. Next time she does it I swear I am going to scream for an hour.” An article might consist of Ten Things Your Friends Do That Really Piss You Off. Both make me appear brash and dramatic, but not poetry. With its offerings of various writing techniques, decorated language and obscurity, poetry manages to keep me sounding eloquent and thoughtful when writing about even the most irritating of subjects. On this same topic of my friend borrowing my clothing, poetry might produce something like: “You snatch away the habitants of my closet with secrecy in your glide, I know when the fabrics have been yours for you decorate them with holes and remnants of last night’s dinner”. I could even express myself through a short haiku: Don’t take my clothing. / You put holes in the fabric. / Is that my sweater?
Poetry is an excellent way to vent and has gotten me through some rough points in my life. From family problems, to tearful goodbyes, to stress at school, stanzas, quatrains, metaphor, have allowed me to gently and thoughtfully express myself and cope in a way that was comfortable, creative and even therapeutic. That is not to say that poetry is reserved only for darker moments. In reverse, poetry is actually one of the ways to record happy memories and to project dreams for the future. I have written countless poems about unforgettable trips I have gone on, happy romances and long lasting friendships, when compiled create an almost literary photo album of my life, that I can always look back on if I want to smile.
With the end of September rapidly approaching we New Yorkers can feel the oncoming fall blowing in gently (or like a tornado, as the past weeks have shown us). School has started for college students, high schoolers and kindergartners alike. Boots and coats are being showcased in storefronts. Along with the arrival of cold air and crunchy fallen leaves also comes a new calendar of events at Poets House.
Our new schedule includes readings and conversations with Marie Howe, W. S. Merwin and Gerald Stern, as well as many others. These evening events cover topics from “The Art of Losing” to “Radical Poets and Secular Jewish Culture,” from “The Lost Poetry of World War II” to “Poetry for Children.” Poets and poetry lovers are welcome to come to any and all events and we frequently invite our guests to participate with the authors, providing a Socratic feel, rather than a lecture or traditional reading.
We also have a series of open-enrollment six-week seminars to help writers explore their craft in new ways. You’ll have the opportunity to learn such things as finding the deep core of a poem with Neil Shepard and ways to refresh your style with Patricia Spears Jones.
In addition to these events our library is still open as usual with new books coming in every day and the 2010 showcase collection displayed near the main collection. We also have rotating poetry-related art exhibits throughout the library and in our Cheney Chapel floating exhibition space.
When I deal with poetry, I know what I want. And I’m never disappointed when I get it, since I want what I need and what’s good for me. If I don’t need it, I don’t want it. I can’t speak so boldly outside of literature, where my ambitions, once I decide to express or attain them, undergo trial-and-error for life. Like Kafka’s protagonists, they are barraged by interrogations, accusations, proofs and reproofs that are subject to change and backfire. Unless my desires remain isolated creatures, they’re free to revolt against me, to betray how stale and profitless they are. They’ll never be at peace. I don’t know if I’d have it otherwise. Then again, as I implied, outside of literature—outside of art—I don’t know what I want.
Today more than ever, I’m seeking poems that strike me as true without having to be tried. They must be worth their salt. By that I mean poems embodying the literary virtues of verbal resourcefulness and economy; grounded on a music and intelligence that is alert, poised and resilient. They mustn’t result from brute chance or lethargy, which is also to say that poems relying solely on their good intentions don’t count. Like Yeats’s work according to Auden, the poems must have been “hurt into being.” Don’t give me poetry that wears its heart on its sleeve, but poetry that is “palpable and mute / like a globed fruit” (MacLeish). I don’t want poems to be made fools of; they must be, in Frost’s words, “like [pieces] of ice on a hot stove that ride on their own melting” and run “from delight to wisdom.” Most poems can’t wake me up from the nightmare that’s the US economy, which is all too real—a world that’s too much with me—to be treated as a dream. But if I view the recession as a storm, then I’m bound to find poems that can wait it out with me.
I selected a few works from Poets House to discuss in the coming weeks on Tumblr. I’ll start with modern and contemporary poetry, such as Kay Ryan’s The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (Grove Press, 2010), which was featured in the Showcase opening in July. Ryan’s poems are quick, thin, pure as stones in melody and form; but contain the gravity of a philosophical treatise, and can stab like a shard of wit I wish I’d delivered myself. In the poem “Nothing Ventured,” for example, Ryan unpacks a timeless adage—nothing ventured, nothing gained—and makes it timely and new:
Nothing exists as a block
and cannot be parceled up.
So if nothing’s ventured
it’s not just talk;
it’s the big wager.
Don’t you wonder
how people think
the banks of space
and time don’t matter?
How they’ll drain
the big tanks down to
slime and salamanders
and want thanks?
For the poet, the act of withholding is not only as much of an expense as a blatant act of generosity or speech, but poses a greater risk than the second gesture which is just cheap talk and no “big wager.” How is it possible to ignore what is absent and unfelt when negation—Ryan refers to cleaning up a pollution site or oil spill—often demands more energy than creation? Further, isn’t destruction an inevitable step in the dialectic of artistic creation, and thus deserving of “thanks”?
Deliberate silence is a special element in English prosody, and a form of aesthetic discipline that strong writers strive to perfect. Consider the caesuras in Old English poetry, the volta in a Petrarchan sonnet, the Dickinsonian em-dash and the vigorously logical grids suppressed in modernist masterpieces such as Stein’s Tender Buttons and Joyce’s Ulysses. Ryan draws her poems from the same vein, regarding “the banks of space and time” to be as necessary as solid matter. Her work can be godly without seeming it; and exemplifies making the best of what one has, even if that means starting from zero.
Kate Mahoney’s current PH project uses technology to extend the reach of a poet’s words.
When I come into Poets House, I take up a post in the AV room or, as I’ve started to hear it affectionately dubbed, “the cave.” Here I’ve been importing the videos and recordings taken at all the events and readings from this past year and editing them in iMovie. Once I edit any video, I post it online, specifically onto Poets House’s page on Blip TV.
This process has been eye-opening and great for increasing my exposure to video editing strategies (and undoubtedly, to events I sadly missed this year). Truth be told, I have never seriously worked on movie editing programs and don’t edit my own videos, let alone post them online. And although I did take a multimedia class for half a year in high school, this project did initially feel a bit like foreign ground.
On another note, it is also a project that calls for, if not screams for, a tremendously patient individual so I feel well-suited to it in more ways than I initially believed. The amount of time it takes for one video to be completely established on Blip TV is (I would estimate) around an hour and a half. Time must be allowed for the video to be imported into iMovie, edited, exported from iMovie, and then finally uploaded onto Blip.
Needless to say, producing something that others can watch and that is somewhat tangible is rewarding. And to think I’ve had a little hand in bringing Poets House up-to-speed and into the virtual world is exciting.
I am convinced we are all on a journey and the lucky ones among us are willing to record and remember our stories from these journeys. My journey is defined in part by my journey to Poets House. It began on a Friday morning last September when I opened The New York Times.
I was holding the morning edition during a post-run breakfast when I stumbled upon the first write-up about the library in its new location in Battery Park City. I devoured the article, musing all the while about how phenomenal it would be not only to spend time at such a place in the greatest city in the world, but also to be able to work there.
Despite clipping and saving that particular article, I put the library out of my immediate thoughts for a few weeks, accepting the truth of my situation at the time. Being at school in Allentown, Pennsylvania and competing in cross-country meets every other weekend were not conducive to spending time getting lost among shelves of poetic works and cases of chapbooks—not to mention the difficult commute which would have been easier had I been living at home.
It would be a few weeks later when I regained footing on my journey to Poets House. I was inspired to investigate the poem “Invictus” largely as a result of the then impending release of the movie of the same name. While falling in love with Henley’s words, I stumbled upon Poets House’s website where I gleefully realized I could intern there. Shortly after, I started pulling things together; revising and updating my resume, drafting a cover letter, and getting in touch with Mike Romanos, the intern coordinator, to set up an interview for a position, all before I left for five months of study abroad in Scotland.
I took the train from my hometown into midtown the first Saturday of my winter break to interview. I remember trudging through the wind-whipping snow along River Terrace, fearing I was going to be late. In the end, perhaps needless to say, all went tremendously well; Mike offered me a position for the summer and I was squared away with an exciting prospect that would make my ultimately sad and difficult leave of Scotland that much more endurable in June.
This journey to Poets House is now a story I enjoy sharing. The sheer serendipity of my reading an article about a poetry library and then landing an internship there is almost too good to believe. And yet it encourages me to reflect on what really was at work to make it jive so smoothly. My gut feeling is that luck was (thankfully) not a major factor. I would pin down the success of this journey to my passion for poetry, my wanting to learn about the world around me, my growing capacity to plan ahead and act on prospects that matter to me and my interaction with today’s technology.
So, in the end, at risk of sounding like a broken record, I say that our journeys truly are about getting places and those critical steps in between, poetic in nature or not. But perhaps the true expression of such journeys is the final key component. Because, really, who can feel, experience, wander, trek, travel, endure, without feeling subsequently and undeniably compelled to ignite that same flame of adventure and intrigue in others?
It is assumed that Poets House has a sort of gravitational pull for those who write poetry. Yet while the patrons wear their poetic lives on their sleeves as they scribble in notebooks and flip through journals, the writing brains of my fellow interns remain undisclosed- well at least they did until last night. Each of the interns and staff gives off a sense of ennui: we all seem to embrace the writer’s detached and questioning relationship with culture and society. Philosophical blips arise during lunchtime conversation about Lady Gaga, and silly literary puns creep into our jokes as we set up for events. After a summer of sensing this strange aura in the Poets House staff room, the interns decided to hold a public reading of the creative work that we each do on our days off from Poets House. We took over Elizabeth Kray Hall and Rebecca, our AV intern, caught us on film as we read our own work and work of our favorite poets. Of course, we still had to set up and clean up…but it was nice to be the stars of a Poets House party for once. Please stay tuned for photos and excerpts from the reading!