Sep 28, 2014

Laureation; Against Single-Mindedness; etc.

Gov. Hickenlooper, Melody, and I on the west steps of the Capitol
Many of you know that in early September I was chosen by Governor John Hickenlooper to serve for the next four years as Poet Laureate of Colorado. It's a great honor, of course, even more so because Gov. Hickenlooper was an English major with an early interest in creative writing. I don't know what ambitions he had for his writing or if he has continued with it "on the side," as we like to say, meaning any activity one does for love and not for gain; but from an all-to-brief conversation Melody and I had with him before the announcement, it's clear that he cares about good writing, and since I have no reputation to speak of and therefore no advantage in politics or business, I'm choosing to believe that he was moved by my work. That makes me feel especially good about the appointment.*

My new office is in University Hall, the oldest building
on the University of Denver campus
What many of you certainly do not know is that when I was informed about the laureate decision, in late July, I had been in a new job for two whole days. My title, a mouthful, is Interim Academic Director of Arts and Culture and Global Affairs, two programs in the University of Denver's Adult and Professional school, which is called University College. I'd taught writing and literature courses as an adjunct in the Arts and Culture program for a dozen years before this opportunity came along, and I was glad for both financial and vocational reasons. Melody and I have had our own business for over 20 years, a marketing firm called Full Scale, which since the 9/11 attacks had been in a long, slow downward spiral. In a business where loyalty was rare to begin with, we saw it disappear altogether, and as marketing became less about telling a compelling story and more about posts and tweets and frankly stupid YouTube videos begging to go viral (you'd think the terminology itself would give clients pause), our business lost its charm. Unsurprisingly, our bank accounts suffered big losses, too. So when I say that I took a "new job," I mean that the whole focus of my daily life shifted.

The new job and the laureate gig coming together as they did is a great gift, I mean to say, but a gift—like all gifts, really—that comes with consequences.

One consequence has been that I haven't been able to post here as often as I used to. I've got plenty to blog about—a crooked stack of books with flagged quotes and sticky notes covered with cryptic observations stands next to my chair. Every time I glance at it I feel accused. But I simply haven't had time or energy enough.

I intend to begin posting again, probably less frequently but more (I hope) consistently in the near future. And toward that end I'm offering an excerpt from one of the most profound, eye-opening books I've read in the past several years. It's by a Canadian poet, scholar of indigenous languages, essayist, and typographer by the name of Robert Bringhurst: The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology. The scope of Bringhurst's book and the thinking behind it is suggested by Jim Harrison in his introduction: "The Tree of Meaning is a book that before your eyes magically enlarges itself from 336 pages to many volumes. The prose is never reductive but tends to push at the confines of whatever room you are reading in so that the four corners seem much farther away than normal." I had exactly this experience in 1973 when I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I've found myself having it again with The Tree of Meaning. Here are a few examples:
It is no accident that prophets of monotheism, including Plato and Mohammed, have often banished the poets. These prophets understand that the poet is a pagan and polytheism by nature. In a certain sense, even Dante, Milton, San Juan de la Cruz, Teresa of Ávila, Gerard Manley Hopkins, an T. S. Eliot are pagans. Without admitting it, they seem to understand, like the peoples of the Altiplano of Bolivia and Peru, and like many Native Canadians, that it is best to interpret Christianity as one more form of paganism.
     But Mohammed and Plato are poets too in their way, monotheistic and tedious at times, but very much livelier and more pluralistic at others.
     The great danger is single-mindedness: reducing things to one perspective, ne idea, one overriding rule.
     A polytheistic understanding of the world survived in Europe even in the time of the conquistadors, though it was then forced to take a wordless form. Music gave it refuge. It is found in polyphonic music, which is the music of multiple, simultaneous and independent voices. The churches of Europe overflowed with music of this kind in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It did not change the course of history, but it preserved an essential perception of the plurality of being. It preserved the essential, faithful heresy that reality is not of just one mind.


In the beginning, a vocation isn't much. Just perhaps a nagging interest that blossoms as habitual attention. it matures into continuous, compassionate, active, multivalent curiosity. Curiosity like that has a peculiar side effect. it produces, over time, a sense of intellectual responsibility. And that produces in its turn a nonconforming and non confining sense of identity. In other words, it is whole. A job is always a fragment. Vocation is whole.


Robert Bringhurst
I believe that all good writing has an oral root. All writing that is good to read sounds good when read aloud, because its goodness likes in part in its humanity. The humanity of a piece of writing is partly intellectual, of course, but it is also parlay physical, like the humanity of a shoe or a shirt or a shovel. It fits the human body. A good shovel fits the hand and foot, and a good sentence fits the voice, because that is the part of the body we normally use to handle sentences.
     The voice has an anatomy, like the arm, the heart, the foot. The voice is mae of breath. A sentence or a paragraph that pays no attention to the reach and rhythm of the voice is uncomfortable or painful, like a shoe that doesn't fit the human foot or a glove on the wrong hand. But a sentence that does fit the anatomy of voice and breath will touch, through them, some other rhythms of the body: those of the heart and hands and feet, and of the memory and mind.


The cheerful term postcolonial, which I often hear on campuses these days, might suggest that the age of destruction is over. In fact, the colonization is still at fever pitch. The great transformation of gold into lead and of forests into shopping malls continues. Some analogous transformations can be seen in the university itself. One of the reagents used for this purpose is the acid of postmodernism: the thesis that nothing has meaning because everything is language. It works especially well in parallel with the acid of unrestrained commerce: that nothing has meaning because everything is for sale. Repeated exposure to these ideological acids produces human beings who cannot wonder at the world because they are not at all sure the world exists, though they can wonder all the more at social power and reputation. When you take the world away from a human being, something less than a human being is left. That is the inverse of education.
Toward a new Canon of North American literature
Now, these excerpts are drawn from the first 63 pages of The Tree of Meaning, which I haven't even come close to finishing yet, but I felt the need to pass them on. And these only brush up against Bringhurst's deepest concerns, which are for the recognition and admission into our consciousness of the great literary products of indigenous peoples. These products existed only in oral form but have been delivered, through the good graces of linguists and translators, into our hands—though the vast majority await translation and publication. Bringhurst argues that we unnecessarily limit our perception of The Canon by ignoring the genius of native peoples, and he's certainly right about that. Perhaps before we attempt to teach classes in World Literature we ought to teach classes in the oral traditions of North America, a geographical and cultural construct that Bringhurst defines as all the lands north of the Panama Canal. How different our sense of ourselves might be if we reshaped our sense of the tradition along these lines instead of adhering to the Modernist desire to trace the roots of artistic value back to Europe.

In his famous poem "The Gift Outright," which Robert Frost read at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, the poet states: "The land was ours before we were the land's." But his implication that by 1960 we Americans had "found salvation in surrender" to the land was a groundless romantic notion. What Robert Bringhurst calls the continuing "transformation of ... forests into shopping malls" proves that we'd better look elsewhere for wisdom if we ever hope to feel less than alien on this continent.

* The people at Colorado Humanities and the alarmingly named Colorado Creative Industries have done a fine job of public relations, I have to say, so that anyone interested in my role as Poet Laureate can find all kinds of information online. Here's a list of links to date:

The Governor's Web site
The Denver Post
The Colorado Independent
The Denver Post (Entertainment [!?])
Colorado Humanities
University of Denver Magazine
Conundrum Press
Colorado Public Radio
KGNU Boulder
KOA Radio

Sep 9, 2014

Aug 22, 2014

Don't Miss This if You're in the Denver Area on September 6th

4280 Tennyson Street | Denver, CO 80212
720.443.2227 |

Aug 6, 2014

Rimbaud in Java

It’s long been known that Rimbaud journeyed to Java in the spring of 1876, a few months after the death of his beloved sister Vitalie. That voyage hasn’t received much attention, though, until Jamie James turned his attention to it in 2011’s Rimbaud in Java: The Lost Voyage. It’s a beautifully designed, brief but fascinating book, more about Rimbaud’s world in 1876 than about his journey, since the details of that are scarce. What James does is piece together likelihoods with a brilliant Sherlock Holmesian zeal. Now and then he strays a bit far from the story, but he always returns to the central plot with plenty of spices picked up along the by-way.

We read, for example, that Rimbaud, in Holland after one of his legendary walks, joined the Dutch Colonial Army for reasons unknown but ripe for speculation. The bonus he received in advance, in gold coins, was certainly a key incentive. He joined “in some Flemish town” but ended up in Harderwijk, where he joined the first battalion of the infantry on May 18, 1876. The Dutch Department of War recorded his induction, noting these particulars:

Face: Oval
Forehead: Ordinary
Eyes: Blue
Nose: Ordinary
Mouth: Ditto
Chin: Round
Hair: Brown
Eyebrows: Ditto
Distinctive signs: None
Height: 1.77 m

These quotidian details exist side by side with insightful descriptions of the Dutch colonial enterprise in a way that, for me at least, shone a fresh light on the poet, who by 1876, at age 22, had already put poetry behind him.

What was it that drove him to Java? The death of his sister? His disenchantment with his violent older lover Verlaine? His disgust with all things European (those deliquescent empires collapsing on every side)? Or the realization that his magical poetry could not and would never change the ways of the world? All of it together, certainly, but however we read his story Rimbaud stands as a chastening example of immense talent destroyed by a money-mad system that couldn’t allow itself to acknowledge the visionary forces he gave voice to in his work.

Aug 4, 2014

Jonathan Greene Travels Back in Time

Jonathan Greene
Don't miss the simply marvelous poem by Jonathan Greene in Ted Kooser's American Life in Poetry column today. Click here.

Jul 28, 2014

Jul 26, 2014

Don't Miss This if You're in the Denver Area on August 2nd

4280 Tennyson Street | Denver, CO 80212
720.443.2227 |

Jul 13, 2014

Walt Whitman Spins in His Grave

First book awards are apt to be contentious. The major ones—Yale Younger Poets, the APR/Honickman, Cave Canem, the Walt Whitman—produce winners that are as often ignored as praised. In poetry, everything is arguable. But the 2013 Academy of American Poets' Walt Whitman Award winner is especially distressing. Judge John Ashbery chose Chris Hosea's Put Your Hands In, which has been issued by Louisiana State University Press. I have to confess that I haven't read the book and will not, based on the odious excerpts from it published in the Spring-Summer 2014 issue of American Poets. Here is what Ashbery has to say about Hosea's book by way of introducing Hosea's poems:
Exactly a century ago, the Armory show brought European avant-garde art to New York. We are still experiencing its consequences. Among the works on view as Marcel Duchamp's notorious Nude Descending a Staircase, which a derisive critic wanted to rename, "Explosion in a Shingle Factory." Both titles come to mind as one reads Chris Hosea's Put Your Hands In, which somehow subsumes derision and erotic energy and comes out on top. Maybe that's because "poetry is the cruelest month," as he says, correcting T. S. Eliot. Transfixed in mid-paroxysm, the poems also remind us of Samuel Beckett's line (in Watt): "The pain not yet pleasure, the pleasure not yet pain." One feels plunged in a wave of happening that is about to crest.
Now, it's clear that Ashbery has no idea what to say about the book he has chosen and so falls back on the magical invocation of Duchamp—a value-free gesture meant as an avant-garde stamp of approval akin to "Gluten-Free". What "subsumes derision and erotic energy" means is anybody's guess, as is the sense of Hosea's poems being "transfixed in mid-paroxysm." It may not be idle to point out that "paroxysm" in its medical sense means "a sudden recurrence or attack of a disease; a sudden worsening of symptoms." In fact, when one finishes puzzling over Ashbery's nonsensical praise and confronts the poems offered up as exemplary, the medical meaning seems the most appropriate.

Here are the first two of the three offered up in American Poets. I have scanned the pages because I figured that otherwise I might be accused of making these things up.

Is it any wonder that this stuff has to depend on the incoherent puffery of John Ashbery, whose poetry has been in steady and sad decline since the mid-1980s? Far be it from me to declare what is and what is not poetry, of course, but if this is what poetry has become, if this is what the poetry establishment—through its inscrutable but lionized master—aims to foist on whatever small audience for poetry remains in this nation, a nation whose idealized image fed the dreams of Walt Whitman and now must leave him spinning in his grave ... well, kindly count me out.

Jul 7, 2014

On Tom Montag's In This Place

In This Place
I highly recommend this insightful review by Peter Stephens of Tom Montag's In This Place: Selected Poems 1982-2013 over at the wonderful multi-author blog Slow Reads. I've posted many times about Tom and his work, but never as cogently as Peter has in this review. Enjoy!

Also, a heads up: Tom will be reading at BookBar in Denver on Saturday, October 4th. More information on that to come, but mark your calendar now!

The man himself

Jun 30, 2014

Borges and His "Christ on the Cross"

I’ve been following a fine freelance translator named A. Z. Foreman, who it seems has never met a language he doesn’t know. His Poems in Translation site is full of gems imported from a dozen or more different languages, including ancient Greek, Persian, Arabic, French, German, and Russian.

Jorge Luis Borges walking with Willis Barnstone
in Buenos Aires, 1975
His latest translation, as of this writing, is an extraordinary poem by Borges called “Cristo en la Cruz,” or “Christ on the Cross.” Says Foreman: “I think this may be the best poem in the Spanish language about Christ's crucifixion.” I’m not conversant enough with the Spanish tradition to have a valid opinion, but I do think the poem is unquestionably fine. In fact, I became so enamored of it that I found myself drawn into doing my own version. There are places where Foreman expands the lines to incorporate what amount to explanations of Borges’s references; he does this with “la conversión de Guthrum por la espada,” for example, rendering it as “Guthrum's conversion by the sword of Alfred,” which in my view doesn’t help much: Alfred, although called "the Great," is scarcely better known than Guthrum. So I’ve stuck a bit more closely to the text, though temptations abound.

Borges, for example, has this to say toward the end of the poem:
Nos ha dejado espléndidas metáforas
y una doctrina del perdón que puede
anular el pasado. (Esa sentencia
la escribió un irlandés en una cárcel.)
Foreman translates it thusly:
He has left us some splendid metaphors
And a doctrine of pardon with the power
To cancel out the past. (This is a dictum
Written down by an Irishman in jail.)
What this misses, I think, is Borges’s use of “anular,” meaning “to annul”, which deepens the irony because the Irishman in question is Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned for “gross indecency” (read: homosexual acts) with his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. While jailed, Wilde wrote De Profundis, a letter to Douglas that prison authorities didn’t allow him to send. In the second half, Wilde describes the spiritual development he experienced in prison, which led to his seeing himself as a Christ figure—Christ, that is, as a kind of romantic artist. Here’s the passage Wilde wrote that Borges probably had in mind:
Of course the sinner must repent. But why? Simply because otherwise he would be unable to realise what he had done. The moment of repentance is the moment of initiation. More than that: it is the means by which one alters one’s past. The Greeks thought that impossible. They often say in their Gnomic aphorisms, ‘Even the Gods cannot alter the past.’ Christ showed that the commonest sinner could do it, that it was the one thing he could do. Christ, had he been asked, would have said—I feel quite certain about it—that the moment the prodigal son fell on his knees and wept, he made his having wasted his substance with harlots, his swine-herding and hungering for the husks they ate, beautiful and holy moments in his life. It is difficult for most people to grasp the idea. I dare say one has to go to prison to understand it. If so, it may be worth while going to prison.
It’s repentance, of course, that occasions divine forgiveness.

This seems more to me than a “dictum,” which I think of (subjectively) as a very brief statement, almost an aphorism. But for the life of me I couldn’t come up with a better word. I did try to capture the occasional nature of Wilde’s writing in De Profundis, though, with the verb "jotted", and to bring the word “annul” into play:
He’s given us splendid metaphors
and a doctrine of amnesty that’s able
to annul the past. (This dictum
was jotted down by a jailed Irishman.)
There are churches, of course, that may annul a marriage, asserting that the marriage never truly existed. The deeper irony Borges is after, I think, is that Douglas and Wilde were actually in love, actually “married,” but Wilde, repenting of that past, essentially had that marriage annulled. Wilde’s compliance with doctrine provided forgiveness but denied the love at the heart of his “crime.” I wonder, too, if Borges didn't see Guthrum's forced conversion to Christianity by Alfred the Great as a parallel to Wilde's jailhouse conversion, in some way "forced" by Lord Alfred Douglas. Hmmm....

Anyway, here’s my effort, probably not yet “final” (if a translation is ever final), undertaken simply for the pleasure of it:

Christ on the Cross
Jorge Luis Borges

Christ on the cross. Feet touching earth.
Three wooden beams, all the same height.
Christ isn’t in the middle. He's the third.
The black beard slumps onto the chest.
The face not the face from iconic pictures.
It's rough and Jewish. I don’t see it—
and I’ll keep seeking it until the last day
my footsteps wander upon the earth.
The man suffers, broken and silent.
The crown of thorns hurts him.
He’s untouched by jeers of the crowd
that has seen his agonies so often.
His or another’s. Makes no difference.
Christ on the cross. Wildly he obsesses
over the kingdom that may await him,
obsesses over a woman who wasn’t his.
He’s not given a glimpse of theology,
the indecipherable Trinity, the Gnostics,
the cathedrals, Occam's razor,
the purple, the mitre, the liturgy,
Guthrum's conversion at sword-point,
the Inquisition, the blood of martyrs,
the atrocious Crusades, Joan of Arc,
the Vatican that blesses armies.
He knows he’s not a god—he’s a man
who dies with the day. No matter.
The cruel iron nails matter.
Not a Roman. Not a Greek. He groans.
He’s given us splendid metaphors
and a doctrine of amnesty that’s able
to annul the past. (This dictum
was jotted down by a jailed Irishman.)
Hastily the spirit seeks the end.
It’s darkened a little. Now he’s dead.
A fly wanders over the stilled flesh.
What use can it be to me that that man

has suffered, if I suffer now?

Jun 6, 2014

On "The Uses of Difficulty"

Sometimes it’s only when a difficulty is removed that we realise what it was doing for us. […] Our brains respond better to difficulty than we imagine. In schools, teachers and pupils alike often assume that if a concept has been easy to learn, then the lesson has been successful. But numerous studies have now found that when classroom material is made harder to absorb, pupils retain more of it over the long term, and understand it on a deeper level.

Ian Leslie, “The Uses of Difficulty
Difficulty is perhaps the taproot that makes poetry different from and (dare I say it?) more nourishing than prose. Prose exists to make ideas go down easy. It explains, it contexts with a vengeance. Even the greatest novel does yeoman duty of creating a setting that defines and restricts its characters’ actions; within the setting, the novel tells us the character stood and left the room or peered over the rim of the canyon or whatever; the novel, as a rule, presents motivations in order to explain why characters are in a particular setting and why they do what they do there.

Poetry, lyric poetry especially, tends to set all this aside. Actions are presented as quiddities, without explanation, and even when explanations seem to be present they are equivocal, polyvalent—in short, difficult. If the research referred to above is correct, this difficulty is what brings readers of poetry back to poems again and again. Surely few readers of prose reread even the most poetic prose as frequently poetry readers reread poems. This makes poetry the most durable of forms, the most rewarding, the most satisfying.

In my experience, readers who dislike poetry typically dislike complexity, period. They prefer the reassuring hand of the patient narrator at their elbow, the pleasures of characters they can “identify with”—that is, characters who have been sufficiently explained so that they, the readers, themselves feel explained and clarified.

Poetry can be clear as snowmelt trickling across the tundra, but the story it tells is full of shadows, which tell us something new and different every time we look into them.


Philip Booth
by Philip Booth

On the steep road
curving to town, up
through spruce trees
from the filled-in canal,
there have been five houses, always.

But when I sleep
the whole left side of the blacktop
clears itself into good pasture.
There are two old horses,
tethered. And a curving row
of miniature bison, kneeling,

each with his two front hooves
tucked in neatly under the lip
of the asphalt. I am asleep.
I cannot explain it. I do not
want to explain it.

Jun 3, 2014

Transatlantic Poetry with David Mason and Gerry Cambridge

David Mason here, reading from his wonderful new book Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade, followed by the extraordinary Gerry Cambridge, Scottish poet and editor of the journal The Dark Horse. Enjoy!

May 30, 2014

Derek Walcott on the Poet's Voice ... and Much More

From a Bill Moyers interview with Derek Walcott:
It takes you all your life to write the way you speak without faking it. I mean I think it’s very hard for a poet, very-very, very-very hard to get to hear his own voice without affectation. I mean I couldn’t read my poems with a British accent, or an American accent. You know, there’s an inner thing that makes me speak, I hope, the way I would write—tonally, not just in terms of vocabulary. So that I could perhaps move from talking to you now and read something that does not heighten me, you know, sociologically or because I’m on TV or something, you know, that you can just slide into your own voice. And that is what a poet, I think, spends his life trying to do.

I first read Walcott in Canada, when I was eking out my MFA at the University of British Columbia, in a funkily red-edged Cape paperback of his first book, In a Green Night. I admired him from a distance because of his iambic formalism and (not uncommon in first books) his tendency toward set pieces. But I couldn't argue with the power of his music and his precise, painterly images.

It wasn't until many years later that I developed a deeper appreciation of his work—I like to think because his work became leaner, subtler, and less affected. He can still overwrite (for my taste) like nobody's business, but his musical and imagistic lushness makes his later work among my favorites.

Here's a taste from his luminous book-length sequence, The Prodigal:
The day, with all its pain ahead, is yours.
The ceaseless creasing of the morning sea,
the fluttering gamboge cedar leaves allegro,
the rods of the yawning branches trolling the breeze,
the rusted meadows, the wind-whitened grass,
the coos of the stone-colored ground doves on the road,
the echo of benediction on a house—
its rooms of pain, its verandah of remorse
when joy lanced through its open-hearted doors
like a hummingbird out to the garden and pool
in which the sky has fallen. These are all yours,
and pain has made them brighter as absence does
after a death, as the light heals the grass.
And the twig-brown lizard scuttles up its branch
like fingers on the struts of a guitar.
If you write poetry and don't feel pangs of jealousy reading this, you may want to check your pulse.

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