Best American Poetry 2016
Note: Số này, có nhiều bài quá OK, Tin Văn đã giới thiệu 1 số bài, nay đi thêm 1 nhà thơ, cùng lời còm của chính tác giả, về bài thơ của mình, và bài Intro của Edward Hirsch, guest editor, khá dài, nhưng rất quan trọng, theo GCC.
No one predicted we'd be sitting there,
just come in from a blizzard to that bar,
and three beached fishermen in the corner
would interrupt their beans to stare at us,
then return to eating, since we were strange,
but cold enough to be left alone,
and that to expect their calm dismissal
of our being there showed we understood
how things worked then, in the dead decades,
after most of the city had vanished
on trains, or had been drowned in foreign ports;
and therefore, when the priest arrived
with his ice-crusted shawl and frozen cross,
crooning mangled hymns, his head gone to praise,
we'd think it right to offer him a seat,
would carry his stiff gloves to the fire,
and fill his glass with wine and pass him bread,
and would suffer the blessings he put
upon the empty wombs of our soup bowls;
and who knew we'd pretend to sing each verse
of the tune he'd use to condemn us,
but would have no answer to his slammed fist,
nor the thing he'd yell to be overheard
by everyone there-when you stand this close
to the other side, don't embarrass yourselves
with hope-as if that would be saying it all,
as if he knew we already stood there,
as if we could mount some kind of defense
before snow turned back to water in his beard.
from Birmingham Poetry Review
CONTRIBUTORS' NOTES AND COMMENTS
CHRISTOPHER BAKKEN was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1967. He is the author of three books of poetry: Eternity & Oranges (Pitt Poetry Series, 2016), Goat Funeral (Sheep Meadow, 2006), and After Greece (Truman State University Press, 2001). He has also written a book of travel writing, Honey, Olives, Octopus: Adventures at the Greek Table (University of California Press, 2013), and he is co-translator of The Lions' Gate: Selected Poems of Titos Patrikios (Truman State UP, 2006). A former Fulbright Scholar at the University of Bucharest, he teaches at Allegheny College and is director of Writing Workshops in Greece: Thessaloniki and Thasos.
Of "Sentence," Bakken writes: "This poem was written during a very cold night at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. An ice storm arrived during my residency and the power went out-so we had no heat. I could see my breath inside my little studio, but words were coming to me and so I stayed put, layering on every item of clothing I had with me, and writing by flashlight at night. I'd been thinking about Greece, as I almost always am, specifically about the winters there, when tourists depart, and the rhythms of life and labor slow almost to a halt and the Greeks are left to themselves.
"The encounter described in the poem was in part remembered from the winter of 1993, when I lived in Thessaloniki, a beautiful, haunted city, in the final decade of a brutal century-one that had brought to Thessaloniki the devastations of the Holocaust, not to mention more recent outbursts of xenophobia and violence. Just a few hours north, war was raging in a place that had once been called Yugoslavia.
"As the poem's long, single sentence gathered momentum, bringing new things to bear upon the scene, the frozen priest arrived and I let him thaw."
Edward Hirsch was born in Chicago in 1950 and educated at Grinnell College and the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a PhD in folklore. For the Sleepwalkers (1981), his first collection of poems, received the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award from New York University and the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets. Wild Gratitude (1986), his second book, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Since then, he has published seven additional books of poems: The Night Parade (1989), Earthly Measures (1994), On Love (1998), Lay Back the Darkness (2003), Special Orders (2008), The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems (2010), and Gabriel: A Poem (2014), a book-length elegy that received the National Jewish Book Award. He is the author of five prose books, including A Poet's Glossary (2014), Poet's Choice (2006), and How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (1999), a national bestseller. He taught for six years in the English department at Wayne State University and seventeen years in the creative writing program at the University of Houston. He is now president of the Guggenheim Foundation. He has received a MacArthur Fellowship, an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award, a Pablo Neruda Presidential Medal of Honor, the Prix de Rome, and an Academy of Arts and Letters Award. He lives in Brooklyn, New York
by Edward Hirsch
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The lyric poem has been practiced for more than four thousand years, and yet its history is still unfolding today. It is very much alive. It has been spoken, chanted, sung and written, compacted and compressed, expanded and enlarged. It has been pictorialized on tablets, inked into papyrus, typed onto paper, generated in virtual space. It is a non-utilitarian form of language sometimes put to utilitarian ends, used to build nations and to undermine them, to reinforce power and to protest it. In our era, it has been radically wrenched and questioned, turned and twisted, stretched nearly beyond recognition, reframed, reformed, hybridized, ecologized, politicized, erased-its difficulties are notorious-and yet it continues to speak from the margins, to move and tell stories, to disturb and console us. It engages our interior lives, social experiences, planetary woes.
There are so many whirling crosswinds in contemporary American poetry, so many voices and schools vying for attention in our cultural noise that it can be difficult to sort things out, to understand the various issues at play. Some of the conversation around contemporary aesthetics is serious, much of it distracting or frivolous. What is the principle of our work, what is the task, what is at stake for poetry now? I have often turned to the history of poetry to try to comprehend our current situation. Perhaps it can also help us figure out where we are going.
Lyric poetry has its roots in the Egyptian hieroglyph and the Chinese ideogram, the Hebrew letter, the Greek alphabet. The Greeks defined the lyric as a poem to be chanted or sung to the accompaniment of a lyre (lyra), the instrument of Apollo and Orpheus, and thus a symbol of poetic and musical inspiration. It emerged from religious ritual, tribal practice. "Poetry everywhere is inseparable in its origins from the singing voice and the measure of the dance," the linguist Edward Sapir writes. The first songs were most likely created to accompany occasions of celebration and mourning. Prayer, praise, and lamentation are three of the oldest subjects of poetry. We still recognize them in various forms, such as psalms, odes, and elegies.
Aristotle distinguished three generic categories of poetry: lyric, drama, and epic. This categorization evolved into three types or classes determined by who is supposedly speaking in a literary work. The lyric, a poem uttered through the first person, was distinguished from the drama and the epic or narrative. It took the form of monodies, sung by individuals, or choral odes, simultaneously sung and danced by a group of performers.
The lyric, especially the monody, was counter-posed against the epic. Whereas the speaker of the epic acted as the deputy of a public voice, a singer of tales narrating the larger tale of the tribe, the speaker of the monody was a solitary voice speaking or singing on his or her own behalf. The lyric poem thus opened up a space for personal feeling. It introduced a subjectivity and explored our capacity for human inwardness. The intimacy of lyric stood against the grandeur of epic, its exalted style and heroic themes, its collective nostalgia. The short poem asserted the value and primacy of the singular witness. Here was the quotidian and the sublime. Ever since Longinus cited it as a supreme model of poetic intensity, we recognize the ferocity of Sappho's poem of jealousy, her lyric meltdown phainetai moi. And I can still hear the chirping of a cricket under the window of a Chinese poet a thousand years ago.
The textbook division between lyric, drama, and epic is helpful but flawed. "Like all well-conceived classifications," the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa writes in "Toward Explaining Heteronymy," "this one is useful and clear; like all classifications, it is false. The genres do not separate out with such essential facility, and, if we closely analyze what they are made of, we shall find that from lyric poetry to dramatic there is one continuous gradation. In effect, and going right to the origins of dramatic poetry-Aeschylus, for instance-it will be nearer the truth to say that what we encounter is lyric poetry put into the mouths of different characters."
The lyric shades off into the dramatic utterance. Poems become dramatic when we get the sensation of someone speaking, when we hear a poem, in Robert Frost's words, "as sung or spoken by a person in a scene-in character, in a setting." That can be the case even when the author seems to be speaking in his or her own voice. ''When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse," Emily Dickinson cautioned Thomas Higginson in a letter, "it does not mean-me-but a supposed person." That's why Dickinson's assertion is as true for Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, so-called confessional poets who intentionally collapsed the distance between the persona and the writer, as it is for Robert Browning, the master of what he termed "dramatic lyrics," and I Ezra Pound, whose book Personae established the masks at the center of his work. Creating a persona, even a close or naturalistic one, is a way of staging an utterance, and there is always a difference between the writer who goes to work and the speaker who emerges in the text. In poetry, selfhood is a constructive process.
Writing fixes the evanescence of sound and holds it against death. During the Renaissance, English writers began to write their lyrics for readers rather than composing them for musical performance. The words and the music separated. Song is vestigial, but writing offers a different space for poetry. It inscribes it, whether in print or on a screen, and thus allows it to be read, lingered over, reread. It also gives the poem a spatial dimension, a defined visual as well as auditory life. It appeals to the eye as well as to the ear. And it appeals to unique as well as common experience. Poetry becomes, as Allen Grossman asserts, "a principle of power invoked by all of us against our vanishing."
Poetry gives us the logic of imagination. Neither a form of visual art nor a mode of music, it borders both, moving toward concrete visualizations on one side, the materiality of language (think of pattern poems), and soundscapes on the other, something meant to be listened to, heard, beyond language (think of wordless verse). It has elements of the fictive, the subjective, the irrational, and taps deep into the well of the unconscious. It can be broken down into its constituent parts, to sounds and syllables, to nonsense words, which may have a shamanic power. "If we think of the soul as split between the government of intellect and a stormy population of feelings," the Russian futurist Velimir Khlebnikov wrote in his essay "On Poetry" (1919), "then incantations and beyond sense language are appeals over the head of the government straight to the population of feelings, a direct cry to the predawn of the soul!. ... "
As contemporary American poets, we are inheritors of the modernist impulse in poetry, a lacerated language. We recognize as our own an acutely self-conscious mode of writing that breaks the flow of time, leaving gaps and tears. We grew up on the discontinuous texts of modernism, collages and mosaics, fragmentary structures, such as The Waste Land, a poem without a fixed center, without a single narrator or narrative thread to hold it together. It contains scenes and vignettes from a wide variety of times and places: agitated scraps of conversation, parodies, intertextual allusions, unattributed and often drifting quotations-a dark medley of radically shifting languages, a disturbing cacophony of voices. There is also "The Bridge," Hart Crane's fullscale reply to Eliot, a kind of broken epic, a "mystical synthesis" of the American past, present, and future, a wavering embrace of contemporary life. We internalized the recurrent strategies of the modernist poets, their many ways of using a-syntactical, nonlinear language to create new semantic relationships. We studied their ruptures. We shored these texts against our ruins.
We are also inheritors of postmodernism in poetry. We have taken as a salutary corrective the idea that language is the author of any work of art; all narratives can be split open and deconstructed; what seems determined by nature is actually determined by culture. Reality is a construction, everything is interpreted. Postmodernism ultimately takes a skeptical position that denies the existence of all ultimate principles and truths, leading to an ironized attitude toward experience. We have been challenged and stimulated by its distrust of universalities, its misgivings about theories and ideologies, its commitment to indeterminacy, undecidability. In his "Postscript to The Name of the Rose," Umberto Eco distinguishes between the avant-garde, which historically wanted to deface and destroy the past, and postmodernism, which "consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently." There is no privileged or objective position from which to speak. We question the stability of truth. Since we are working in the wake of postmodernism, I would say that there is an even greater vertigo in contemporary poetry, a more extreme destabilization, sometimes cool-and giddy, sometimes desperate for insight.
And yet it is also striking how many contemporary American poets experiment with the various traditional forms of poetry, the different shapes a poem can take, some prescribed or fixed, others organic. The poetic line still matters as a basic unit of meaning, a measure of attention, and the stanza, sometimes symmetrical or isometric, sometimes asymmetrical or heterometric, is still one of our most compelling ways of structuring a poem. There is fuller recognition now that the very division of poems into lines and stanzas has always created logical leaps and fissures, which distinguish poetry from prose. It is disjunctive, like a torn papyrus, and can accelerate with dizzying speed. Words floating in air, lines cut on a page, stanzas carved into units. Poetry is a mode of associative thinking that takes a different route to knowledge than philosophy, its ancient antagonist. It follows its own wayward but resolute path. Or as John Keats wrote to his friend Benjamin Bailey in 1817: "I have never yet been able to perceive how any thing can be known for truth by consequitive reasoning."
Our poets today are more eclectic than ever and draw on a plethora of sources, high and low, popular and literary. It may be that these divisions no longer apply. Surface and depth collapse. We employ the discontinuities of collage, its elisions and dramatic juxtapositions. And we also d raw on more discursive modes of poetry, a way of putting things in rather than leaving them out, rapidly associating, making connections. Some poets adopt more narrative strategies, taking time as their latent or underlying subject. They do not fully narrate a story so much as they infer or imply one. Other poets, taking a cue from Wallace Stevens's late poems, such as "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," have created a more meditative and inclusive poetry of consciousness.
As a result, the old modernist and postmodernist divisions now seem a bit anachronistic. The various schools, the polemical "isms," which defined so many twentieth-century poetry skirmishes and battles, are on the wane. One can read syncretically, combining, say, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, George Oppen,James Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Frank O'Hara. Is there a single poet who isn't influenced by poets from other languages, poets they read in translation, such as Rilke, Cavafy, and Celan, Milosz, Herbert, and Szymborska, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, and Mandelstam, who believed that poetry is a form of recognition and that poets of all ages echo each other? What about Lorca, Vallejo, and Neruda, what about Basho, Rumi, and Mirabai, what about the poets of the Tang Dynasty, such as Li Po and Tu Fu? What about Darwish, the breath of a people, and Cesaire, the instigator of Negritude? I love the severe austerities of Montale, the reckless metaphors of Amichai, whose tenderness is startling. Apollinaire still seems utterly fresh to me, and I think often of his verdict on "that long quarrel between tradition and invention / Order and Adventure" ("The Pretty Redhead"). I wish I could talk to Stephen Berg again about his versions of the Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti, and Mark Strand about his translations of the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti. We choose our own ancestors, our own influences-or perhaps they choose us. Everything, everyone, is potentially part of the mix. "The fact is that each writer creates his own precursors," Borges teaches us in "Kafka and His Precursors." "His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future."
The old divides, many of them holdovers from the 1960s, no longer seem relevant. Does anyone still need to choose between, say, image or narrative, metrical or free verse, traditional or nontraditional forms? Projective Verse, Deep Image, Naked Poetry-these are all part of our inheritance. It is no longer necessary to select exclusive anthologies, singular traditions. We could use a more synthetic reading, a more encompassing and inclusive history, of the poetic past. Poetry is not a competitive sport with different teams playing against each other. Does anyone still remember Philip Rahv's description of American literature as a cultural split between patrician writers, who moved in "an exquisite moral atmosphere," and rebellious frontier spirits, so-named "palefaces and redskins"? That language comes from another century.
The commitment to an individual voice, an unauthorized testimony, an eccentric viewpoint, is still one of the things that I value most about American poetry. In our age of suspicious reading, we no longer trust the claims of lyric poetry-its faith in the first person, its sense of a unified form, its very musicality-and yet some of our poets continue to write out of desire and experience, constructing things with urgency, out of necessity. They respond to our existential perils and predicaments, our hesitations, our uncertainties. They move between speech and song, combining lyrical and narrative values, inventing and describing things, formalizing them, referring to other poems, learning from other poets far and wide, those who have come before us, and seeking a personhood.
There is nothing like reading hundreds of literary magazines, thousands and thousands of poems in a given year, to unsettle and clarify one's judgment. I am grateful to David Lehman for our illuminating exchanges about the poems. One tries to be disinterested, but all reading is subjective. What was I looking for?-I wasn't always sure. What I found myself responding to, what continued to compel me, was precision and surprise. Memorable lines, craft deployed. Poems I could not shake, texts that arrested me. Poems that demonstrated a certain kind of thinking, imagistic or metaphorical thinking, poetic inquiry. Literary investigations, obsessions, intelligence. Emotional accuracy. Poems written under pressure, poems in which something dramatic is at stake, at risk, for the speaker, who would not be deterred. A kind of ruthless authenticity. Poems that take themselves to task. Poems in which something spooky or unexpected happens in language, poems that stood up to rereading, experiences I could not forget, the happiness and suffering of others. There are many poems of grief and lamentation here, but also erotic poems of celebration, comic poems of wild hilarity, odd joy.
I am proud to stand behind the poems in this book, an array of voices, a record of the "best" from 2015. An impossible task-there is no hierarchical or objective best-and only time, future readers, poets to come, will determine what is lasting. We no longer believe in the ancient literary ideal of "fame," which posits a posterity. And yet I found myself returning to certain poems and not others, sometimes for inexplicable reasons. It seems crucial to me to be open to different perspectives, a variety of poetic forms and experiments, a range of viewpoints, some of them having to do with class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and race. I am struck by how often these testimonials speak from a particular vantage point, from inside the experience of an "I," and present a witnessing. They will not be silenced. Whitman's empathic imagination remains a bedrock goal: "I do not ask the wounded person how he feels," he proclaims in "Song of Myself," "I myself become the wounded person."
I would go so far as to say that the lyric "I" is now returning with a vengeance. This book suggests that it is on the rise. The poets and theorists of the avant-garde, many of whom are white men, have consistently critiqued and disempowered the "I" in lyric poetry, the speaking subject. They have attacked the very idea of subject matter itself and displaced it with a theory of language as an entirely self-referential system. Poetry becomes free play. It courts meaninglessness. This critique of meaning in poetry, which initially came from right-wing modernists and later from left-wing postmodernists, has all the entitlements of an elite institution. Despite its protestations, it reinforces the reigning power structure. Why is it that the avant-garde is in denial about the antisemitism, homophobia, misogyny, and racism that powered so much of the modernist project? It has been ruinous for ordinary, overlooked, and otherwise dispossessed people. The idea that subject matter is naive or somehow shameful further marginalizes already marginalized voices by rendering mute their experience.
The reclamation of the democratic "I" is an implicit critique of the critique about poetry. It advances against the "advance-guard" and recovers poetic territory that has been prematurely relinquished. The responsive or revitalized "I" is not naive but encompassing. Some of our poets are working in modes that have pushed beyond the formulas of postmodernism. They blow open the old-fashioned idea of a unified self, while also retaining what poetry does best, which is to press down on the present moment, to pursue meaning out of experience. There is genuine suffering in the world, the suffering of actual people, and poetry addresses this suffering almost better than anything else. We are not passive but active subjects both of personal and social history. Experience does not come to us prepackaged. It demands our attention, our intervention. Losses accrue, memory is a responsibility. We have not entirely abandoned our posts. Some of our poets have decided to answer the call for a poetry of clarity and mystery.
This book is multitudinous. A number of these poets I've been reading for decades, others are entirely new to me. I made many discoveries-at least they were discoveries to me-and I am glad to introduce a group of tough-minded younger poets, who are bringing news from the front. There are at least three generations represented here. And I am grateful to be able to include six poets who are no longer alive-Frank Stanford, Larry Levis, Claudia Emerson, James Tate, C. K. Williams, and Philip Levine-but whose work continues to live. Charlie Williams and Phil Levine were two of my dearest friends and role models in poetry, and I especially mourn them.
Kenneth Burke calls literature "equipment for living." It is precisely that. Every couple of years someone comes along and enthusiastically pronounces that poetry is dead. It is not. On the contrary, it is an art form that continues to thrive in unexpected ways, engaging and evading its own history, setting out on unknown paths. We live, perhaps we have always lived, in perilous times, and stand on the edge of an abyss, which absorbs us. We are called to task. Poetry enlarges our experience. It brings us greater consciousness, fuller being. It stands on the side of life, our enthrallment.
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