Recently I pulled some of Lucille Clifton’s poetry off my shelf, because I hadn’t read it for a while—not even since her death in 2010. Opening her books now and browsing in them felt like re-connecting with an old friend. The first thing that always strikes me about Clifton’s poetry is what’s missing: capitalization, punctuation, long and plentiful lines.
I remember the American Poetry Review, March, 1977, page 26, cows and bald hills of Tennessee and rabbis of Brooklyn, their foreheads “wrinkled” as their “gigantic lips moved / through the five books of ecstasy, grief, and anger.” That’s from “Psalms,” one of twelve poems by Gerald Stern, whose photo on the cover showed his own gigantic, Jewish lips.
Roger Kamenetz has published nine volumes of poetry. Each builds on his prior work, often revisiting, reconsidering, and reimagining previous poems in the Jewish tradition of midrash. As one critic observes, Kamenetz “recovers Jewishness as a field for discourse, not sentimentalized imagery. In direct and imaginative address, he puts the question of Jewishness under discussion with large parts of honesty and humor.”
I have been a reader of Hölderlin for many years. I took down his collected poems and read his hymns to the Virgin Mary and Patmos, his elegy “Bread and Wine” and his river poems (on the Main, the Neckar, the Rhine, the Ister).… They are fraught, paradoxical poems that display majestic architecture, and they brought me some peace.
So here it is: a quiz game for Close Reading readers. Below are fifteen famous first lines from famous literary works. The sources (the answers) are given below the line of asterisks after the final quote. But DON’T PEEK; it’ll spoil your fun.
I heard of shy Caedmon, sneaking out of the feast before the harp was passed to him, for he could not sing, and he fell asleep in the barn by the animals he was charged to keep and dreamed of an angel who told him to sing, so sing he did, of the creation first and then of every other holy tale until no great thing God had done had failed to find its way into English.
The process of translating from one language to another is often called an art. The late Italian medievalist and novelist Umberto Eco, aware of translation’s inherent difficulties, called it, “the art of failure.” Every attempt is inexact and partial, getting some things spot on, whiffing at others. Translators are continually forced to compromise, choosing the least flawed option while rendering the original in the target language and—devotees of the King James version aside—no one translation proves definitive, once and for all.
It’s the last place I’d have expected to find my Uncle Karl. That’s Karl Shapiro: my mother’s brother, 1945 Pulitzer Prize winning poet who was celebrated in his time, appointed Poet Laureate in 1946-7, editor of Poetry 1959-56, awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1968. But Karl is practically unknown today.
When our son died, I was struck by a phrase my wife repeated both shortly after his death and in the nearly five years since: “Where are you, Daniel?” We need to imagine a somewhere for those we love. I think, in part, that need is connected to our greatest fear—that those we love simply disappear without a trace as time passes.
Once I lived in Jerusalem. Two years in the late 1970s. I went to the Kotel, the Western Wall, many times to pray. Face of flesh to face of stone, I felt heart. I felt soul. My heart, my soul, my my: too small, too confined to one human body set apart to characterize what I experienced there in prayer.
If there are a thousand ways that we allow what we think are tensions between love and reason to destroy the one or the other, what a miracle it is that the poet has a vision of what is possible when a love and a reason hold together, and remain faithful. The poet says, “This is how transparency was constructed.”
In previous books, both prose and poetry, Bodo has returned to his childhood in Gallup, New Mexico and his going off to seminary in Cincinnati at the age of fourteen. Now, at eighty-five, he wonderfully conflates his youth with his present life. Take the long poem “To Go to Assisi.”
A couple of months ago I re-read some of the work of an anonymous fourteenth-century figure known as the Pearl Poet or the Gawain Poet. There is little poetry in the English language that affects me so profoundly as that of the Pearl Poet. His two chief works after which he is called, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl, form the bedrock of my understanding not just of fantasy literature, but of fiction generally.
Japanese Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki once famously told his disciples, “Each of you is perfect the way you are…and you can use a little improvement.” In this he expressed a core Soto Zen teaching that practice is already enlightenment. To be fully, freely present “at a station” with no attachment to outcome is already awakening. Robert Duncan’s “Come, Let Me Free Myself” reflects this basic insight in a rich and original way.
What am I doing in the Blue Ridge Mountains? What am I doing turning to Jerusalem? What am I doing with all this history, this Jewish history? This poetry, this Jewish poetry? Body, heart, mind, soul: each looking in a different direction for home.
Paul Mariani’s latest collection of poems, All That Will Be New, just published by Slant Books, covers a wide variety of subjects and poetic forms. There are poems about particular classic paintings, about race relations, about death (including Christ’s), about Covid, about the trees and birds in his own yard, and more. The poetic forms range from free verse to iambic pentameter with ABBA rhyme scheme to terza rima.
A quarter of a century before Milton finished Paradise Lost, the young poet began listing topics for his future masterpiece. Ardent devotees who imagine the poet foreordained to create a great religious epic might be surprised to learn that his list of more than a hundred ideas contained thirty-three from British history. His leading idea, at the time, was an Arthurian epic.
What’s your name, they asked. “Rick.” I had just arrived in Israel. July,1976. One of seventy volunteers from the U.S., I was settling into the Mercaz Klitah, Absorption Center, in Kiryat Shimona. One of Israel’s development towns in the north, situated at the foot of the Naphtali Mountains and close to the border with Lebanon, Kiryat Shimona was then a working class city. What’s your Hebrew name? As far as I knew, I didn’t have a Hebrew name.
Recently my wife and I packed the kids up and drove to the coast by Savannah, Georgia, to attend the wedding of my wife’s lifelong friend. The house where we stayed was a five-minute walk from the beach. There, I thought of the greatest lyric poet of the sea to write in English, and specifically about one of his poems.
I like to memorize poems—to have them in my head to recite while I’m exercising on my indoor bike or taking a brisk walk in my neighborhood. Not surprisingly, I find that short poems with rhyming are the easiest to memorize. So sonnets are ideal. Take Mark Jarman’s epilogue to his collection Unholy Sonnets (2000).