More on the MLA, the off-site unofficial marathon reading, and neat things about individual poems or books of poems, caught at the few panels I could see in their entirety...
The big format of the big reading confirmed Michael Fried's still very important argument of forty years ago that the condition of theater (like it or not) is what lies between, or surrounds, the various arts-- and that behavior which draws in the audience and calls attention to the circumstances the work shares with the audience will attract attention when attention can't be directed, or isn't directed, to the moving parts in the work of art as such.
The more flattering way to say that is to say that non-poems, performances that would not have worked as poems on a page, fit the occasion: Kristin Prevallet reading "The Day Lady Died" backwards, for example, or the (very considerable) poet and editor Susan Schultz holding up signs that said things like FASCISM -> SAFETY.
And yet the bits that I most wanted to remember (as opposed to the bits I found easiest to remember without writing down) were lines from poems: Chuck Stebeldon, who also helps run the world-renowned Woodland Pattern poetry bookstore and art-space in Milwaukee, read a poem that contained the wonderful shoreline line "Cattails haptic when fashion is thick in the skin" (at least I think that's what it said); Tony Triviglio's Rumsfeld poem explained, "Like anyone, he is shaped by childhood events."
And then there were some professors and graduate students who talked about poems by other people. Several of those said memorable things (memorable to me, at least; admittedly they were also a bit academic)-- such things are outlined or at least mentioned below the fold.


I caught just the tail end of a promising discussion about how to make poetry anthologies and scholarly editions: I wish I had heard Jenny Penberthy, the world expert on Lorine Niedecker, talking about how to edit that reclusive and often ill-treated great writer.
I did hear Nigel Smith, who recently did a truly new edition of Andrew Marvell: Smith says at least some of Marvell's best poems were the product of a now little-known social circle, connected to London's Middle Temple, and that editions of Marvell should reflect the connections among Marvell and the other poets with whom he worked, such as Richard Corbett (who wrote this beautiful poem about fading English superstitions ), Thomas Stanley (who paid the bills), and John Hall.
I also heard the always-enlightening Heather Dubrow talk about John Donne. She pointed out that his poems tend to play with, encapsulate, and embed in other kinds of literary projects, the many stories they also contain: "The stories critics tell about Donne too often neglect the stories Donne tells." Where are the stories-- where does the story begin-- for example, in this fun poem of libertine self-mockery? And who gets mocked-- the poet, or his (supposed) lover?
I had the good fortune to talk to the Stevens people about late Stevens and Hartford-- it turns out you can learn something (as I tried to tell them) about his last poems by learning about his favorite park, and as soon as I've assimilated this book about that park I'll probably have something written and finished about it. I also heard David Haglund, a critic from Oxford, talk about early Stevens and the poet's changing views of his career.
Later that night, Corey Frost, a graduate student and CUNY and apparently an experienced slam poet, showed video clips and talked about the differing structures and audience expectations at poetry slams around the world in Australia, Canada, and the United States. Apparently there are poetry slams in Singapore and in Nepal; apparently Montreal slams are especially interesting if you're used to U.S. performances, since the bilingualism of the city generates bilingual spoken-word poetry too-- Frost thinks the bilingualism also contributes to the prominence of "sound poetry" (that is, poems made of sounds that aren't words) in Montreal if not elsewhere in Canada.
And, apparently, Australian performance poets at their most celebrated are "rhyming standup comedy" (Frost's term): clips of this guy seem to bear Frost out. Whenever I encounter academic work on performance poetry I compare it to this wonderful book by a classicist with a serious interest in contemporary spoken-word genres: alas, that comparison didn't come up in that room.
I was sorry to miss two critics whose work on Irish poets I always try to read, Jonathan Allison and Heather Clark: their subject, Louis MacNeice, is the poet of the moment in the UK, though not really over here.
I wasn't sorry to come home with my own weight in books of poetry, fiction and (mostly, alas) criticism-- the books were the one part of this year's trip to the Death Star that turned out much better than I expected, and I'll have something to say about them-- maybe even some Salient Sentences to Quote (caps intentional)-- tomorrow, I think, or else the day after that.

Originally Published: January 2nd, 2008

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...

  1. January 2, 2008
     Henry Gould

    One American poet influenced by MacNeice is Edwin Honig. Honig's 60s long poem Four Springs takes after MacNeice's 40s long poem Autumn Journal, to some extent. I remember hearing (years ago) Honig talk at length, enthusiastically, about MacNeice & his poetry (I think he'd met him at some point over in England).
    (speaking of Donne : the conclusion of Honig's mostly-mournful poem echoes Donne's "Valediction Forbidding Mourning" - "O more than moon, draw not up seas / to drown me in thy sphere..." When I told him (at some wine & cheese deal in 1971 or so) that I'd heard that in his poem, he said "You're making my hair stand on end." Most of the time, with Honig, I couldn't tell if he was kidding or not.)

  2. January 3, 2008
     K. Silem Mohammad

    I'm interested to hear about Marvell's poetic community. He's long been a favorite of mine, but I've only ever been able to form a picture of him as Milton's secretary and/or a solitary eccentric, which I of course know couldn't possibly be accurate.
    I had the pleasure of seeing Heather Dubrow give a talk on lyric at an MLA some years ago, and talked with her for a couple minutes afterward--a terrific scholar and person.

  3. January 3, 2008
     Henry Gould

    Hi Kasey :
    As far as I know (& I'm not an expert), Marvell was a public official, an elected member of Parliament, a writer of verse satires & Horatian odes on Cromwell etc... His dreamy pastoral poetry was perhaps more of an escape from a very busy social life (or a criticism of same), than a reflection of his daily routine.
    As I say, I'm not an expert, but I believe Marvell was begotten, not made, out of a dream Keats was having, while snoozing on the furze or gorse or moss or whatever, after taking a long hike with Wordsworth, Blake & Clare; and furthermore, ye olde Englande itself was a figment of his (Marvell's) imagination. Or so I've heard.

  4. January 3, 2008
     Major

    Thanks Steve for the sweeping review of events. I might, perversely, be one of few poets who actually enjoy MLA, slightly better than I do the AWP conference. Maybe, it is even perverse to entertain the idea of pleasure with either of those behemoth gatherings. Much joy, nonetheless, in reading your post. Lorine IS under-appreciated, right?