Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Ricardo Sternberg and Stephen Yenser read at the Sacramento Poetry Center, coming together with SPC host Bob Stanley, after a long hiatus of 32 years since Sternberg and Stanley were students in Yenser’s creative writing class in 1975.

Bob Stanley even had some dittos that he had kept from that class and dittos of one of Sternberg’s poems that he had written for a workshop. That poem “The Ant” was in Sternberg’s most recent book Bamboo Church (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003).

Sternberg led off the evening and read a series of poems from his earlier books The Invention of Honey and The Map of Dreams. He started with “Meal,” “The Prince Soliloquy,” “In the Metro,” and a poem addressed to an unkind reviewer. He followed with “The True Story of My Life,” and “The Pelican in the Wilderness,” He also read some sections from his long book-length poem sequence “Map of Dreams” before he read selections from Bamboo Church, such as “Two Wings,” “First Dance,” “Plateia Kyriakou,” and “Supply=Demand.”

After a lengthy intervening open mic session (during which yours truly contributed to the tedium), Stephen Yenser opened the evening with selections from the book of poems devoted to Dorothea Tanning’s surreal paintings of imaginary flowers. The first piece he read was derived from 3 lines of a James Merrill poem, and the piece was given the title of the Latin genus and species name appended to Tanning’s fictitious flower, namely “Merrillium trovatum.” Yenser then went on to read a piece from the same collection that he had written for one of Tanning’s fictitious flowers (which coincidentally opens his new collection Blue Guide.) The poem was entitled “Love Knot.” Yenser proceeded to read several other poems from Blue Guide. He read “Paradise Cove,” “Helen’s Zen,” “MRI: A Trance,” “Variations on Ovid” and selections from Skafian Variations.”

Saturday, March 17, 2007

UK Poetry: Should I Stay or Should I Go

What Up With British Poetry?

For an American audience not necessarily familiar with contemporary British poetry, The Times Literary Supplement provides examples of the most demeaning tendencies: placid, sentimental expositions of nostalgia and linked clichés invariably given 19th century allegorical titles like “Old Man,” “Solitude,” or “The Burden.” Here is a recent example, by Kevin Halligan, of the kind of British poetry familiar to readers of the TLS:


The days go by us like the cars,
Either fast or slow,
One followed by another
Rushing through an amber light,
Or grinding up a hill,
Or casually taking a corner
With a dog gulping the breeze.

Then all of them run together
At once, almost identical.
Someone with a tinted window
Swerves to the right
Attempting a new direction,
And the rest follow as at a funeral,
Keeping a respectful distance.

Such a poem—with its knock-knee rhythms, its Hallmark, dog-gulping-the-breeze images, its facile analogies, its empty rhetoric (“Either fast or slow”), its predictable structure (first one thing, then surprise, “at once” something else happens), its elegiac tone and faux wisdom—uh, didn’t we hear the one about the days running together before?—at best offers us fuzzy reassurance that things are as we’ve been told they are: life is modest, mildly poignant. The reward of the poem is its reminder that we knew about the days all along.

As an antidote to such drivel, I recommend the forthcoming Chicago Review which features several hundred pages of British poetry and poetics.

Friday, March 2, 2007


“Every poem is a political poem. Telling the truth is a political act.” Philip Levine.

For almost six years I’ve been enjoying a conversation with Moira Magneson about poetry and politics. Moira is one those rare human beings whose hopes for peace on this planet are genuine and indefatigable. She is also a truly talented poet. On Tuesday, we met at Café Metro—just down the street from Sacramento City College, where Moira teaches—to talk about Wislawa Szymborska’s poem, “Some People,” and why we think it works so well as both poetry and politics.

The poem begins in a tone of matter-of-factness: “Some people flee some other people./In some country under a sun/and some clouds.” What struck us was how the poem sustains this tone through the use of generalities, while becoming more and more specific, to the point of creating an internal tension. A tension that echoes the tension between the distant people who created the war and the people caught in its cross-fire. The repeated use of the word “some” is constantly changing and takes on the sound of bombs detonating in the distance.

As the poem progresses, generality becomes universality as the reader creates his or her own image of the fleeing people’s faces, races, nationalities, and social classes. All the while, Ms. Szymborska provides crisp, specific imagery of the terrors they are trying to survive. Moira put it this way: “she is considering the many individually.”

“Some People” is a poem that creates empathy for people without choices. Ms. Szymborska’s empathy is inclusive. One that reminds us the perpetrator may not have many choices, either.


Some people flee some other people.
In some country under a sun
and some clouds.

They abandon something close to all they’ve got,
sown fields, some chickens, dogs,
mirrors in which fire now preens.

Their shoulders bear pitchers and bundles.
The emptier they get, the heavier they grow.

What happens quietly: someone’s dropping from exhaustion.
What happens loudly: someone’s bread is ripped away,
someone tries to shake a limp child back to life.

Always another wrong road ahead of them,
always another wrong bridge
across an oddly reddish river.
Around them, some gunshots, now nearer, now farther away,
above them a plane seems to circle.

Some invisibility would come in handy,
some grayish stoniness,
or, better yet, some nonexistence
for a shorter or a longer while.

Something else will happen, only where and what.
Someone will come at them, only when and who,
in how many shapes, with what intentions.
If he has a choice,
maybe he won’t be the enemy
and will let them live some sort of life.

Ms. Szymborska is a native of Poland and the winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for literature. Born in 1923, she is among that generation of poets who many consider the most important of our time. I came upon “Some People” in her Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997 (Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1998), translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.