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Read These on Your Death Bed
May 23, 2010 11:36 AM   Subscribe

Read These on Your Death Bed: Helen Vendler on last poems by James Merrill and Wallace Stevens.
posted by puny human (33 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Either these curtains go or I do.
posted by GuyZero at 12:09 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


I lost interest when she started lecturing about her role as the interpreter of scholarly poetry for the uneducated masses. But I kept listening.

Then I turned it off when she started reading a poem and I heard the word "tintinabula."

This is why I hate pretentious poets.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:16 PM on May 23, 2010


If you don't like words like "tintinnabula," you're not going to like Wallace Stevens, pretty much guaranteed. That's one of his less obscure words. Goes with the territory, doesn't necessarily make him "pretentious."
posted by blucevalo at 12:24 PM on May 23, 2010


That's Wallace Stevens, charlie don't, and he's hardly pretentious. You need to listen one more minute to hear what's going on: it's pretty damn cool. Well, anyway, she had me at The Binocular Poetry of Death.
posted by steef at 12:29 PM on May 23, 2010


Tintinnabula? Of the bells bells bells?
posted by DU at 12:30 PM on May 23, 2010


Plus, there's ducks.
posted by steef at 12:30 PM on May 23, 2010


Oddly enough, I am already reserving James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover for the end of my life, if I have mind enough and time.
posted by jamjam at 12:31 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


The tintinnabulation of the baby ducks, ducks, ducks.
posted by steef at 12:33 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh man, it's pretentious to explore the English language? WS's instinct for words is one of my favorite things about his poetry—he collects all these odd, musical bits of English and rigs them up into a kind of Rube Goldberg machine of meter and rhyme. I don't know how anyone can resist the sound of a poem like "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," especially after reading it aloud:
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
He's not always a terribly accessible poet, but surely that's not the only criterion we have to go by?
posted by cirripede at 12:38 PM on May 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


I lost interest when she started lecturing about her role as the interpreter of scholarly poetry for the uneducated masses.

Why don't you stick around a bit? Sounds like you could use a lesson in close reading. What Vendler actually says is: 'because there's one level of writing for other scholars, there has to be a level of writing too, I think, for the general public, that while not sacrificing anything intellectually, does do more in the way of explanation'. Which is a gentle and tactful way of saying that some scholars don't try very hard to make themselves understood.
posted by verstegan at 12:44 PM on May 23, 2010


The last poem by John Updike:

Requiem
It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
‘Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise – depths unplumbable!
Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
‘I thought he died a while ago.’
For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.
posted by Faze at 1:02 PM on May 23, 2010 [7 favorites]


..Which is a gentle and tactful way of saying that some scholars don't try very hard to make themselves understood.

If that is what she was trying to say, she wasn't trying very hard to make herself understood. Neither was the poet she read before I got sick of it. And if she's espousing a "binocular poetry of death" then IMHO she is looking through the wrong end of the optics.

As a writer myself, I like some good wordplay, but Wallace Stevens isn't it. There is a difference between "inaccessible" and "deliberately impenetrable." At the very least, a poet who writes for an audience of poetry readers ought to know that referring to tintinnabulation really smells, smells, smells.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:05 PM on May 23, 2010


> As a writer myself

I'm trying not to be mean about this, but as a writer, you might try a little harder to figure out what might be good about writing that a lot of other people appreciate, rather than dismissing it out of hand because it didn't grab you right off the bat. "I'm a writer myself, so I know that [Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Stevens, or whoever] sucks" is not a winning approach.
posted by languagehat at 1:37 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


lh, I have read enough Stevens to believe (and this is an opinion of course) that he's not worth my effort. Sure, if a bunch of people want to debate his merits, fine, but I have other things to do.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:44 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Vendler's Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill (The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts)

"And if she's espousing a "binocular poetry of death" then IMHO she is looking through the wrong end of the optics."

Uh, that would be the adjective form of 'binocular' she is using there charlie, as in 1. Relating to, used by, or involving both eyes at the same time: binocular vision.
2. Having two eyes arranged to produce stereoscopic vision.

sheesh!
posted by puny human at 2:39 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Jesus fuck, do not mess with Wallace "I'll Write English Like It's a Suave Armory Show of Stroboscopic Nudes" Stevens. Such grackle blather, you bad-pharynxed man. C’était ton esprit bâtard, l’ignominie." Go hither into the slovenly wilderness and bang your lard pail over Billy Collins, the Thomas Kincaid of American letters.
posted by Haruspex at 3:16 PM on May 23, 2010 [7 favorites]


Thanks haruspex. I was waiting for l-hat to bring it, but he seems to have mellowed in his dotage ;)
posted by puny human at 3:23 PM on May 23, 2010


"Uh, that would be the adjective form of 'binocular' she is using there charlie.."

And this is what I get when I take poetic license with a poetry scholar's poetic description of a genre of poetry.

Wordplay: it's not just for poets anymore.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:31 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


So who have you read whom you consider to be a non-pretentious/non-impenetrable poet? Do you have any examples? Or are you just hanging around this thread to broadcast how much you dislike Wallace Stevens?
posted by blucevalo at 3:53 PM on May 23, 2010


here charlie, this is probably more your speed. enjoy.
posted by puny human at 4:09 PM on May 23, 2010


It's okay to have unreasonable opinions about poets. It should be encouraged, really.

Personally, I like John Ashbery but wouldn't like to defend my appreciation for his work. Because half the time I can't understand what the hell he's really talking about, but it still leaves me with a smile and usually more than that. Sometimes that's what poetry's about. Sometimes it's about something more Important than that, sometimes it's something smaller, sometimes it's nothing you can name at all.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 4:24 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


I love Stevens, and the "pretentious poets" comment raised my hackles a little too, but perhaps we can lay off on the condescension? I hear delightful, strange words and rhythms when I read Stevens, like the English language has been disassembled and put back together into something new. If charlie don't surf doesn't hear that, that's fine; we all have different tastes, and telling someone they're not "up to speed" enough to enjoy complex poetry probably won't help.

And he obviously knows a great Clash song when he hears one.

I will say that there is a lot of Stevens which is (for lack of a better term) very penetrable and completely marvelous. The poems "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and "The Man with the Blue Guitar" are fine examples:
A tune beyond us as we are,
Yet nothing changed by the blue guitar;

Ourselves in the tune as if in space,
Yet nothing changed, except the place

Of things as they are and only the place
As you play them, on the blue guitar,

Placed so, beyond the compass of change,
Perceived in a final atmosphere;

For a moment final, in the way
The thinking of art seems final when

The thinking of god is smoky dew.
The tune is space. The blue guitar

Becomes the place of things as they are,
A composing of senses of the guitar.
posted by cirripede at 4:26 PM on May 23, 2010


I don't think we are being condescending cirripide. Charlie's repeated put downs of the post, of Vendler and and of Stevens seemed to indicate that he was itching for a fight. Either that or he is joking and just doing an imitation of a blissfully ignorant obtuse person. And if he is just joking, then I apologize and applaud him, because it is one hell of an imitation.

Personally I agree with what blucevalo said -- put up or shut up.
posted by puny human at 5:00 PM on May 23, 2010


So who have you read whom you consider to be a non-pretentious/non-impenetrable poet? Do you have any examples?

At the moment, I'm particularly fond of Thomas Hardy. I always like a writer who can write expressively in English, like it is English and not some dada tone poem with words chosen more for texture and rhythm than meaning. Yeah, scoff at me for liking some romantic sop, sure.

Now look, I'm not "itching for a fight" or trying hijack this thread (although I seem to have done that, and I apologize). If you must, beat up on my for my opinion, but if you like Stevens or this poetry critic, remember that's just another opinion. It's not like there are true, objective standards on poetry, as much as any critic would like it to be so.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:31 PM on May 23, 2010


That's Wallace Stevens, charlie don't, and he's hardly pretentious.

Eccentric standards!

The link in "Stevens" doesn't mention something I would have thought important: the device of having two separate strands going in the selfsame poem is not new. It's a feature of the pantoum, which goes one better by repeating the same lines in different meanings. Description from Rhyme's Reason: "There maybe any number of quatrains, but, starting with the second one, they aregenerated by repeating the even-numbered lines of each as the odd-numbered ones of the next. The final line of the poem repeats the opening one. In addition, a touch of riddle is preserved in that the first half of each quatrain is about something wholly different from the second half." (But ideally, the first half of each quatrain is about the same thing as the first half of the other quatrains, mut. mut. for the second halves.)

No surprise that the author has "seen it elsewhere"! It's a technique of long standing.
posted by kenko at 5:49 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


I almost immediately flagged my own ill-considered comment as against guidelines, for which I apologize. However, I can point out quite confidently — because following Auden in doing so — that Hardy too was effective (if perhaps a bit labored) in deploying the textures and cadences of English within his own wiry verse, its contrasts and colors enhancing his intentions (intentionally!) at every point. No more or less than Stevens, certainly no less than any poet worth reading.
posted by Haruspex at 6:47 PM on May 23, 2010


Well, haruspex, let's just say that IMHO Hardy didn't have to torture the English language as much as Stevens did, to get it to do what he wanted.

Anyway, to try to drag this back on topic, I can understand the dual (rather than "binocular") nature of death poems, as Vendler explained, although I am more partial to Japanese death poems (辞世の句) which have an aesthetic all their own.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:13 PM on May 23, 2010


To be clear, I am happy to have charlie in this thread, and I try to value all view points, but to come out of the gate with such a dismissive attitude and comments bordering on the trollish, I think it is only fair that he expect a little blowback. But if he would like to share some of his Japanese death poems, I think all will be forgiven.


"It's not like there are true, objective standards on poetry, as much as any critic would like it to be so.'

Even if true, there are certainly well informed, well intentioned, thoughtful and intelligent individuals who have devoted their life to the study of poetry and the arts, and Vendler certainly qualifies on all these counts. If you hadn't quit the lecture after 2 minutes in a fit of pique and righteous indignation, I think you might have found that she wasn't pretentious or opaque at all, nor at anytime did she descend into lit speak or impenetrable theory. She certainly helped broaden my appreciation of the Stevens poem. Merrill is a favourite and personal hero of mine, and reading along to Christmas Tree as I listened to her lecture last night I did something that I haven't done in a long time with any piece of poetry. I cried like a baby.
posted by puny human at 7:26 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Now look, I'm not "itching for a fight" or trying hijack this thread (although I seem to have done that, and I apologize). If you must, beat up on my for my opinion, but if you like Stevens or this poetry critic, remember that's just another opinion.

I'm not beating you up. I merely asked you for an example of who you'd cite as a readable poet and I have my answer. Thank you.
posted by blucevalo at 7:39 PM on May 23, 2010


LATE FRAGMENT
Raymond Carver

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
posted by Pants McCracky at 9:59 PM on May 23, 2010


..think it is only fair that he expect a little blowback. But if he would like to share some of his Japanese death poems, I think all will be forgiven.

Well, sorry, I tend to have too much snark generally. And there is a tendency for visual artists (like me) to be dismissive of poets, especially if they use a visual metaphor like "binocular" which is more related to the eyes than the spoken or written word.

Anyway, there is a short article on zen death poems that appeared a long time ago in Slate. I'm not so big on zen philosophy, but they appear in other buddhist traditions as well. Most of the poems in the Slate article are relatively direct translations of haiku and other Japanese literary forms, they deal mostly with the impermanence of life, which is sort of a different take than Vendler's lament/celebration themes. Alas, the true richness of this form really is lost in translation, and these poems are often masterworks of calligraphy too. There are a lot of other similar poems from other sources (even as recent as the death of Yukio Mishima). I recall first seeing these in an anthology by Donald Keene but I don't recall which volume (he produced many).
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:18 PM on May 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


Thanks for these additional recommendations.

It seems to be true that there's always been something of a mixed reception for Stevens' work, depending on the time and place. For all the Helen Vendlers who believe that Stevens is misunderstood as being remote and recondite, there are critics (particularly, for some reason, British ones) who find Stevens not their cup of tea. "Something missing in the man which, cumulatively, is faintly depressing" is one of the milder criticisms. Others have included "his work is even less respected than read," "he has not much to say, but an unusual felicity in saying it," and my personal favorite, "a simpering lutanist of fleas."
posted by blucevalo at 7:26 AM on May 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


LOVE AFTER LOVE
Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here, Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine, Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
posted by crookedneighbor at 11:25 AM on May 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


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