Category Archives: Poetry

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Our American Poets

Poets-new

In the spring of 1963 I lived for a semester with a handful of fellow students in a pleasant wood-frame house in Berkeley, Calif. The house was perhaps 50 years old and in good condition, but it was to be demolished that May to make room for an apartment building.

In a hallway that I walked through several times a day hung a wood-framed glass-fronted collection of photographs of six distinguished-looking people. And though they were mainly looking at each other — three on the left looking to…

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Didn’t Know I Would Really Go

campbell

Last week Glen Campbell’s six-year descent into Alzheimer’s came to its end. His survival time after diagnosis was roughly the average for that terrible disease. Everyone who enjoys country-flavored popular music or guitar playing will mourn him. But for me the greatest loss is that he was the quintessential musical interpreter of the wonderful poetical and musical work of Jimmy Webb, surely one of the 20th century’s greatest popular songwriters. I think the quality of their collaboration has s…

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Language Birthers

shakespeare

Shakespeare birthers believe that anyone but the Bard wrote the plays and sonnets.

Birther is an excellent word, invented about a decade ago to designate those who claimed, against all evidence, that Barack Obama was born in Africa (or Asia — anywhere outside U.S. territory) and thus prohibited by Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution from holding the office of president of the United States. (Nobody claimed that he had not attained the age of at least 35 years, or had not been a resident…

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A Brown Eyed Handsome Man

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 1.25.19 PMI’ve been mourning a gifted African-American poet who died this week. Charles Edward Anderson Berry was 90. The news media talked mainly about his brilliance as a guitarist and showman and his historical importance as perhaps the prime creator of rock and roll, and all that was true, of course. But what I always admired most of all about Chuck Berry was the extraordinary verbal fluidity and imagination of the songs he wrote.

Berry loved to tell stories in song. “Maybellene” (1955), his first rec…

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Recovering My Heritage

RobertBurns

It’s January 25, and as everyone knows, that is the birthday of the Bard of Ayrshire: Robert Burns.

And since a small conference on the Scots language is being held today at the University of Edinburgh, there is surely only one possible choice for what to do tonight: We’re having a traditional Burns Night Supper.

A Burns Supper, though the format is informal and flexible, typically involves certain rituals, and of course certain characteristic foods. The food at our gathering will be fully in l…

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The New Cruelty

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Illustration for “Lycidas” by Samuel Palmer

“Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth,” wrote John Milton in what was once, I am assured, a poem every schoolboy knew by heart. The poem, of course, is “Lycidas,” Milton’s glorious memorial to a young friend who has drowned.  The line’s first three words became the title of a 1929 novel by Thomas Wolfe, less read now than it once was.

But it’s those last three words – melt with ruth – that might stop you. The sense of that phrase – may the ang…

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How Does It Feel?

ows_147681816330759I feel that today is a day when it’s incumbent on me to be newsworthy, so I’m writing about …

Bob Dylan. When the announcement came last month that he had been selected for the Nobel Prize in Literature, the ensuing hue and cry was, as my Lingua Franca colleague Bill Germano has noted, predictable.  The notion of Dylan-as-poet had been controversial for more than 50 years. Bobby Zimmerman, of Hibbing, Minn., adopted a poet’s last name and over the years published a book of verse (Tarantula), a s…

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An Ill Wind That No One Blows Good

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It’s one of the funniest quotations I’ve ever studied, and perhaps the hardest to source. A search through the chaos of the web rapidly reveals that it has been speculatively attributed to at least a dozen people: Sir Thomas Beecham, Ambrose Bierce, Bennett Cerf, Ornette Coleman, Johnny Dankworth, Duke Ellington, Sylvia Fine, Danny Kaye, Laurence McKinney, Ogden Nash, George Bernard Shaw, and Mark Twain. Even the musical instrument it describes is also in dispute: I have seen it confidently app…

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Foul Things of the Night

dracula

Eula Biss was a featured author last week at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And from her I learned something horrifying about certain vile creatures of darkness.

My bibliophile friend Melinda, a visitor from Hawaii, wanted to attend the session on Eula’s much-praised study of vaccination, On Immunity (Graywolf Press, 2014). It was sold out. Demand for seats is intense. Cognoscenti book their choice of events (only four per person allowed) on the day in spring when the program is ann…

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An Ancient Poetic Device Called — ?

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Dido & Aeneas, in the cave.

As my final Stateside treat before leaving for Corsica this weekend, I’ve just finished my friend Ann Patty’s book Living With a Dead Language: My Romance With Latin. Ann will be subbing for me next week, so I want to introduce you to her — though probably the best introduction would be to read the book, which is just out in bookstores.

My affectionate response to Living With a Dead Language has to do with more than friendship, though. I’m in my third year of trying…