To read Joyce's review of Nadya Aisenberg.

To read Joyce's column on a critic's poetry collection.

To read Joyce's column on Stephen Burt and Michael Scharf in the PSA Panel on Criticism.

To read Perloff and Vendler Spar at PSA Panel on Criticism, part one of Joyce’s OBSERVATIONS

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A review by Joyce in Summer 2000 of Thomas O’Grady

More work by Joyce Wilson in Spring 2000

Poetry

A review of Wit

Poetry Porch Feature

The State of American Poetry: Roundtable Discussion
penObservations: A Column by Joyce Wilson


Pennsylvania Journal: Notes from a Conference on Poetry


The Drive Begins

88888 A tape of early Bob Dylan takes me from my home in Massachusetts through Rhode Island. His song “Restless Farewell” was a favorite of mine years ago travelling across country to (and from) California. I remember cherishing it because it left me alone with my feelings, how much I missed everyone—those I would not see again for a long time and those I could not bring with me. His image of a group of friends gathered in a small room where they laughed and sang protected from the world outside expressed more than departure sentiments. What he communicated but could not have said directly was what I sensed but never would have wished to verbalize: those left behind were friends that I would never see again. Not only would times change, but they would change. They would never be the selves I knew and loved so well and so briefly.

New York to New Jersey

88888 The Cross Bronx Expressway is my penance, and the George Washington Bridge is my gamble on time. I have one chance to exit to the city and visit my daughter. I have plenty of time to forfeit such a diversion as I inch ahead in the lava flow, using first and second gear, my vision blinded by the glaring bodies of trucks. Frank Sinatra gets me through it. Unlike Dylan, who leaves you alone with his thoughts, your thoughts, Sinatra sings to you. Everything he sings, as he stretches across the bars and reaches for that soothing vibrato, is directed at reassuring you that he is with you or needs to be with you, that you are not alone, that soon you will be together with him. You will be coupled.
88888 Hence, Sinatra is the favorite of the old marrieds and Dylan of the generation with a cult fetish. Do I listen to more Sinatra than Dylan these days? That farewell in California included but did not include the man who became my husband, who returned East a short time before I did, and who was waiting for me to get back (and who is waiting for me to finish writing this now so we can go out to dinner).
88888 I leave my car in the parking lot of West Chester University and with it, I hope, all this popular culture. It’s poetry I want, poetry, poetry, and more poetry, preferably as a link to the riches of the past.

First Days

88888 West Chester University in Pennsylvania used to be West Chester State Teachers’ College. Its setting serves its upgrade from state college to university well as it nestles unobtrusively into the small, outside-of-Philadelphia town. Founded in the mid-nineteenth century, the rolling campus is green and sports a gothic castle and comfortable houses of large serpentine field stones. The newer architecture augments the old with tolerable post-war simplicity.
88888 This is the perfect place for seeking out the quiet places. In no time I find the bench at the opposite end of the park, the quiet lounge on the third floor of the campus center, a cool corner in the library. I love walking alone with my own thoughts through the modern and older campuses. It’s wonderful to be here. I make an effort to mingle with the others after panel discussions. But what I love about this interlude of four days is my sessions alone with myself. My room in the dormitory has no frills but it’s perfect in its organization and economy. I brought a laptop, which the small desk beside the window accommodates perfectly. I could stay here for a month! The rest of the summer!
88888 I came prepared to write—to be alone!—but the schedule of events lists something I want to absorb in every block of time. Whenever I miss a panel discussion or even the beginning of a presentation, I regret it. It is important to absorb those events you like and those you don’t.
88888 At the first reception, I make two friends right away. They seem familiar, as if they might be stand-ins for two friends I already have. Let’s just say one is fair and the other dark. One sunny and talkative, the other more pensive, saving her comments for matters of weight. The fair is a critic and tenured assistant professor; the other works in a library. The critic and I have no trouble finding each other after readings and talks to exchange impressions and witticisms. The other disappears for twenty-four hours. After she resurfaces, she suddenly asks me, “You have a daughter?” “Yes.” “One daughter?” “Yes, an only child. And you?” “Yes, one daughter.” We take a good look at one another and smile, having touched ore for a poem.

Open Poetry Reading

88888 The focus of the conference is exploring poetry through form and narrative. This encouragement to pay attention to structure becomes evident with the first open reading, where many of the poets read verse that plays with language and rhyme rather than the authors’ own experiences. When the autobiographical comes through in one group of poems, it is disappointing. How much the poet seems dragged down by mundane concerns. (Would I say as much about my own poems?) This listener wants them to fly free! It is necessary to focus on autobiographical sometimes, but after Robert Lowell, one might ask, who has lived an interesting enough life? This turning away from autobiography is becoming a trend. In the urban venues of Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, it seems that the personal rants have uprooted and moved from the open poetry readings to the poetry slams. And yet, to become bored with all of life would be a kind of death. And so, listening to these readings, one looks for life in the forms, in delights with language, and in aspirations to improve one’s craft.

After a Panel on Small Presses

88888 One would do well to publish with this small press under the helm of such an articulate, not-easily-impressed editor, David Sanders, who chooses two books of poetry a year for publication with Swallow Press, part of Ohio University Press. He looks for a book by a poet in mid-career who has published two or more books and is recognized for his craft. This press also administers the Hollis Summers Prize, an annual prize for a manuscript of poetry. Sanders quotes Ivor Winters who suggested that poets “write little and do it well.” He talks with exasperation about the business end of the publishing world. Runs of 300 books are too small, so Swallow Press begins with runs of 500 cloth copies and 1000 paperbound copies which hopefully will all sell. The money is never certain. He claims that all book selling is consignment these days, as a result of the problem of book returns from the mega-book stores and Amazon.com. But rather than entertain us with some clever promotion scheme, he stresses articulate discussion of the poetry he likes and the poets he publishes—-Ivor Winters, Janet Lewis, Edgar Bowers, Turner Cassity, J. V. Cunningham, Helen Pinkerton. He furthers the philosophy of the founder, Alan Swallow, who wrote that one can make up for poetry’s losses two ways: with wealth, and with work. Wealthy individuals and foundations must coordinate their assets with the efforts of editors, publishers, reviewers, booksellers, libraries, and readers to make poetry important in today’s culture. It is discouraging to note that Swallow wrote this in 1949. And yet the press is still going. That is greatly encouraging.

On Richard Wilbur

88888 The second evening, we celebrate Richard Wilbur’s birthday. It is his eightieth. And what a literary tribute! The program balances humor and gravity with grace. R. S. Gwynn begins with a toast, two poetic stanzas comprising lines from Wilbur’s poetry that focus on the Dionysian (as if to counter any claims that he is strictly Apollonian). Next, the soprano Susan Gundunas sings “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide (which Wilbur translated), showing her confidence and poise as the vivacious heroine. This could not be more opposite in temperament from the next presentation, the text of two poems that have been set to music by Alva Henderson. They are sung by Gundunas and the baritone John Kramer to the piano accompaniment of John Keene. Each poem, “The Writer” and “Song,” is about a father’s love for his daughters, one a struggling artist and the other a still born infant. The effect is one of a highly emotional, serious, operatic presentation of sentiments so intimate that one worries whether they should be given such a public treatment. However, in the formality of the event, the presentation holds. Then Anthony Hecht gives an introduction that takes a panoramic view of the accomplishments of successful poets. He explains how Wilbur, who has never written a bad poem, resides with the most accomplished. Then Wilbur takes the podium with a humility and a shrug of the shoulders that is almost casual, as if he is at a loss for words. What is happening? We have heard the words, the songs, the tributes, and now here is the man. Suddenly the whole event has become so exquisite I want to pinch myself. Is this real?
88888 Wilbur is not one to be at a loss for words for long, and he begins reading the first poem in his newest book, Mayflies. The poems that follow present a retrospective, the old and the new, the short and the long, the originals and the translations, some from hard bound and paperbound books, some still on type-written pages. He reads poems that are funny and sophisticated, serious and intricate, for children and adults. It is his skill with metrics that shores up every verse, regardless of subject or appeal. It is this consistent musicality that is so special, and that brings, as Coleridge has said, “the whole soul of man into activity.”
88888 Fifteen years ago, at a poetry reading in Cambridge, few would admit an interest in the poetry of Wilbur. “He writes pretty verse,” a critic complained. “He has so little to say.” I agree that Wilbur’s poetry expresses the perspective of a Caucasian male of Anglo-Saxon protestant descent, monogamous, family centered, who established his persona in the 1950s and never changed that much since. Yet this is not to say that his verse represents the superficial. Darkness pervades many of his poems, as is evident in the first poem of Mayflies “A Barred Owl,” which ends with the description of the bird eating its prey raw. Wilbur claims darkness as his ever-present other half in one of the poems presented in song this evening. If it seems that to focus on the beautiful has been out of favor, it is clear that an audience with a high tolerance for beauty is re-emerging in West Chester. As Wilbur reads his poem “The Beautiful Changes,” I remember that he is not describing how changes themselves are beautiful but that all things change, yet when the beautiful changes, it leads to a deeper experience or knowledge, as if it is the property of beauty to open doors.

After a Panel Discussion on Reviewing

88888 The recurrent complaints arise at this discussion: why are so few reviews devoted to poetry, why are reviews so short, and why don’t more famous poets review each other? Lack of money and competition for space explain the first two questions. The answer to the third brings up the anxiety of poets who don’t write criticism because they don’t want to jeopardize their standing with the public. George Core, the editor from Sewanee Review, describes the value of having a common reader, someone who is well educated and has the time to review books of poetry with an unbiased eye. This reviewer, really an intelligent reader who writes, will not be pressured to alter his opinions for friends or associates who are poets. But I wonder how many educated readers of poetry can resist writing it in these times?

Workshop

88888 Rachel Hadas leads the workshop on blank verse with a great skill at egalitarian discourse. She incorporates every view into the discussion, presents the opposite view without being dismissive, lets no single participant dominate, and bolsters each of us with just enough encouragement. We each present a poem for the group to critique, and no one triumphs. The purpose is to uncover every trick and motive and question, question, question whether this is a good poem. I leave each session with a list of suggestions for composition and revision and books to research.
88888 Not many of the original poems presented were in blank verse, the form being taught. We are here to learn, after all, and we begin with Milton, discussing how the pace of his language, the polysyllabic and then the monosyllabic words, the Latinate vocabulary and the ordinary all contribute to the metrical rhythm, its regularity and its variations on the regular. We proceed to discuss the poetry of Shakespeare, then Frost, and I connect with Wordsworth. His lines convey his patience, one participant observes. As Wordsworth describes walking on a summer night with a group of friends through countryside so damp and foggy that they can’t see, he remarks how each sank silently “into commerce with his private thoughts.” I am convinced that this phrase has been leading me on for the past few months. Or should I say more simply that it echoes my own thoughts? I must study the rest of this poem.

On Working for Love

88888 I stand with a group of academics, students, writers, and poets in the gothic hall where the reception is in full swing. We have just seen a performance of Dana Gioia’s Nosferatu, in which each soloist performed with perfection. We all want our efforts to have this much professional polish. The group discussion turns to money and the need for more funding for the arts. I come away with names of contacts who are interested in making donations to artists and writers and organizations for the arts like my Web site, the Poetry Porch. We promise to contact each other once we resume our daily routines in our normal lives. The conference has elevated our dreams and, as we talk, we laugh and elbow each other as a reminder that we are mortals who must begin the descent back through the clouds to the hard earth.

On West Chester, Pennsylvania

88888 One wishes the name were something other than West Chester, which is so easily confused with Westchester County, New York, whose affluence is very unlike the wealth of Pennsylvania, with its serpentine stones, greener flora, and closer proximity to the South. As west, one cannot disassociate the identity of the charming tree-lined town from Chester, Pennsylvania, a place to avoid because of its slums, oil refineries, and fire-breathing pollution. (And yet, Ethel Waters came from Chester; one will always remember that now.) West Chester is a great many degrees removed from Chester, in appearance and culture if not in geography. A sedate court house dominates the main corner, the residences have large lawns, the sidewalks are brick, the traffic managed through a system of one-way signs. Downtown has become a charming oasis of small shops and outdoor cafes. The transformation from rural economy to gentrified suburb of Philadelphia is showing minor growing pains. The turnpike has been kept at the outskirts of town lines. The former slave quarters are now attractive affordable single family homes. The state teachers college turned popular university shows signs of thriving. One would prefer a name like the other memorable names from the area: Brandywine, Chadds Ford, Lafayette, Longwood, Penn, Winterthur, Wyeth. Aralia comes to mind, but it’s been taken by Aralia Press.
88888 West Chester was the primary urban center of my childhood. Accessible by bus, it was the place where I learned to shop and bought my first shoes, blue jeans, and bra with my own allowance. At the movie theater in the center of town, I waited for hours in the rain to see Lassie Come Home to be turned away in tears because it was sold out. This was where I did see The Pit and the Pendulum, Gone with the Wind, a special on Richard Burton, and Olivier’s Wuthering Heights. On these sidewalks I memorized my first Shakespeare sonnet and chose The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra as my favorite play. O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, a close second, would draw me to New England.
88888 The women in the pharmacy were congenial and friendly. None remembered when the movie theater had been in the center of town. The only cinema is in the mall, they said, out on Route One. How different the place has become to me, who remember the years of hostility endemic to that particular place, where every clerk was suspicious of every girl who was old enough to carry a child, talk back, or shop lift. How to describe such a town after I moved so far away and returned so seldom? One lives, experiences cumulate, and the terms of comparison shift. “It is so different yet so familiar,” I explained to my husband. The dorm room where I stayed was much like the freshman dorm of our daughter during her first year at University of Virginia. “West Chester sounds like Charlottesville,” my husband observed. “Yes, that’s it!” I replied. The town, the university, the beautiful environs are very much like Charlottesville, Virginia, which I have come to know through a handful of visits, yet visits so special to have become a frame of reference!

Leaving on Sunday Morning, 7 a.m.

88888 The Pennsylvania countryside is so beautiful it takes your breath away. It is not the northeast. It prepared me for Wordsworth’s Windermere, which I could visit with a measured detachment when I traveled from London to Edinburgh years ago. Today, these green hills steeped in sunlight are almost more than I can bear. All my trials began here, and the awful details of my life might convince me to deny the memory of this place, its sustenance and sufficiency. Wordsworth learned how to frame such vistas of the heart.

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***** Joyce Wilson is the editor and publisher of The Poetry Porch and a regular contributor to The Drunken Boat. She teaches at Boston University.