Friday, November 14, 2008

 

My thrust on Tuesday was not that Words in Air, the correspondence of Robert Lowell & Elizabeth Bishop, wasn’t a worthy book. It almost certainly is. Rather my problem is/was two-fold, first with the omnipresent wave of publicity in mainstream media, a consequence not of the book’s value but the book’s publisher, FSG, a brand these days of Macmillan, and with the patently false historic framing that was being accorded the two poets in order to justify the attention being given.

The flip side of this sort of unwarranted excess is that good, even great books end up not receiving the attention they deserve. Case in point: The Grindstone of Rapport: A Clayton Eshleman Reader, just out from Black Widow Press in Boston. Black Widow is not one of those presses that reliably takes out half-page adds in the few remaining newspaper book review sections with maybe a back cover once a quarter the way Macmillan labels do. But it publishes an impeccably edited, well-designed book, as this volume makes clear. And this is a much more significant literary event. What do you bet it doesn’t get half the reviews of Words in Air?

Part of the genius of this book is that it’s not a selected poems. Every Eshleman does – has been doing now for some 45 years – fits together, from his poetry to crawling around the caves of Southern France, from his attention to fine food to editing & translation. This book captures what came from his pen, meaning that it’s not the whole of the Clayton Eshleman Experience, but it is those facets that come forth as writing.

I’ve been fortunate to have been a reader from the beginning. Eshleman was born in 1935, making him more properly the peer of the likes of Robert Kelly or the Waldrops than my own generation. But he waited until he was in his late twenties to start publishing, or at least to start publishing the work that shows up here. If memory serves me right, I first saw a version of “The Book of Yorunomado,” the earliest poem collected here, in Poetry back in the heyday of Henry Rago’s editorship in the mid-1960s. It was an audacious beginning, announcing Eshleman’s endless intellectual – and emotional – ambition, his engagement with the work of the Projectivists, particularly Olson, and with the psyche, as well as his fascination with world cultures (he was teaching military personnel for the University of Maryland in Kyoto at the time) and especially with the poetry of César Vallejo. It’s all right there at the outset, tho he had yet to set foot in a cave or meet his second wife & lifelong companion, Caryl.

Soon thereafter, Eshleman began the journal Caterpillar, which very rapidly established itself as the premier U.S. journal for writing engaged with the New American poetics.¹ Or at least that range apart from the New York School – Eshleman was by then living in New York City & there is no doubt a story that’s never been fully told of the gap betwixt the 2nd generation NY Schoolers & those other strains of New American poetics & why, for example, such deeply New York personalities as Jerry Rothenberg or Armand Schwerner, not to mention David Antin, Eshleman, Jackson Mac Low or Diane Wakoski – not to mention Paul Blackburn – were never fully adopted into that poetics, or why they themselves seemed to hold themselves at arms length from it. If I recall correctly (and I’m operating strictly from feeble memory here), Eshleman soon published a version of “Yorunomado” in Caterpillar that is much closer (perhaps identical) to the version that is captured here in Rapport, essentially removing the edits that “polished” the poem for its original publication. I remember being struck at this conflict between first version & “most finished” version & Eshleman’s own choice – it would prove important to me over the years as I began to make my own way into my own work.

If you go back & look at the Caterpillar Anthology, Eshleman’s selection of greatest hits from the first 12 of that journal’s 20-issue history (by the time Clayton & Caryl made their way to Cal Tech, the caterpillar had transformed not into a butterfly, but as Sulfur, the journal which more (most?) of the readers here are apt to remember), what that collection reprints first of Eshleman’s own work is not his poetry, but rather a test of translation he did of versions of Bashō in the second issue. Tho none of Eshleman’s “tests” are among the 20 prose pieces – taken from five volumes – collected in The Grindstone of Rapport (nor is Bashō among the eleven poets translated), that choice for critical thought & for the act of translation is reflected here also. Rather than taking what I think would be the expected path of poems, translations, critical prose, Eshleman puts the prose right in the middle, so that the volume is bracketed by the creative drives of poetry & poetry-in-translation & Eshleman’s critical prose is squarely in the middle where it can’t be ignored as treated as though it were an appendix.

Tho there are moments, absolutely, where you just might take Eshleman’s prose for his poetry – and he writes at length of translation. For Eshleman, the critical dimension is always active, always present in poetry and the poetic / creative dimension is no less active in the prose. If you don’t get that when reading Eshleman, I suspect he must appear to be hard sledding indeed. And it leads to some marvelous nuggets, such as this first paragraph from a piece entitled “Remarks to a Poetry Workshop”:

Many creative writing students put too much of their energy into defending what they write, forming a resistance to change which occurs while attempting to write in a way that depends on change as its primary characteristic.

That’s an assertion I suspect almost any creative writing teacher would endorse, regardless of their aesthetic commitments. As Olson put it in another context, What does not change / Is the will to change, an aphorism apt for so many occasions in our lives. What Olson does not show us, however, is the flip side of that coin: What does not change / Is the fear of change. It is worth noting here just how often in Eshleman’s work – poetry, prose, translation – these competing impulses are at the absolute heart of the drama.

Not surprisingly, Eshleman does not stop with this single-sentence paragraph, even if it is one that should be tattooed on the back of the writing hand of every MFA student. The next paragraph swerves sharply enough to give many a reader nosebleeds:

Rimbaud tells us that I is another. He means by this that the I one brings initially to writing poetry is at best a chrysalis for incubating an imago, an imaginatively mature, or monstrous I whose life is in the poem. To achieve this second I one must translate the first I, moving it from the language of experience and memory to the language of imagination and inspiration.

You can envision any number of readers, and especially writing teachers, on both sides of the avant line, stepping off the bus right here. And yet Eshleman has said nothing more dramatic than that a poem might be described as a machine made of words. It is how we get from here to there that so engages Eshleman – it’s the driving force of so many of his explorations. If Robert Grenier might be said to have embarked on a lifelong quest to articulate how it is that words emerge in thinking, Eshleman is just as active – and just as obsessive – in tracing what happens to the I, the self in that very process. As Creeley, echoing Rimbaud, once wrote: When I speak I speaks. Eshleman wants to open up that territory between the first verb phrase & second, and to bring the whole history of that transformative dimension & how & why it takes place. This accounts for his work on psychology as well as his fascination with the first paintings, the moment man was first able to record this journey from I speak to I speaks. You can, if you read it rightly (I nearly wrote writely), find the whole of human history here, from Galileo to Michelangelo to Pol Pot.

So translation is the key, and not just in the rendering the work of others into our own tongue, tho perhaps that affords some of us the best possible rehearsal of this drama. The final third of Eshleman’s volume includes of course translations from Vallejo & Césaire – work for which he has rightly earned acclaim & awards – but also those French poets who are quite close to his own vision, Rimbaud & Artaud and, to a lesser degree, Deguy & Bador, as well as Neruda several Hungarian & Czech poets.²  It is these latter poets who are news to me in this edition, just because I am unfamiliar with their work.

This is a wonderful book, but not without its limitations. Eshleman is not unaware of this himself, and actually offers – a great idea – a list of 13 other projects that would need to be included in a “gargantuan-sized collection” of his writing. As it is, you can tell just how carefully this volume has been put together, with roughly 250 pages of poetry, 170 pages of prose, 160 of translation. I have just two quibbles: one is that a poet whose work so entails a critical intelligence, and which includes so much prose, ought to have an index; the other is that the footers at the bottom of each page would be far more functional if they had included, say, the title of the volume from which they were taken and that of the individual work, rather than just the title of this book and “A Clayton Eshleman Reader.” You can see just how trivial those quibbles are.

I do hope that someday we get to have the gargantuan selection in print. Eshleman’s work warrants it. Ideally, that volume should be published by the likes of FSG and should go to market with the same full-court press we’ve seen for this recent volume of letters. It would be interesting to see FSG publish not just successful books, but important ones.

 

¹ I have in the past suggested that Caterpillar took over this role from Coyote’s Journal, Jim Koller’s publication that went on hiatus right at that moment & which employed a fairly similar look as publication, only to have Eshleman correct me, noting that his model had been Cid Corman’s Origin. This is unquestionably true, and it is true also that Coyote’s Journal, with its New Western / Zen cowboy aesthetic, offered a very different take on the New American poetries than Caterpillar. Yet it’s worth noting that Origin was a hard publication to find if you weren’t already plugged into the scene fairly deeply, while you could find both the Journal and Caterpillar at several Bay Area locations, such as City Lights, Cody’s, Moe’s & Serendipity. If Robin Blaser had not subscribed to the second series of Origin when he was the poetry buyer for San Francisco State’s library – which kept it among the rare book items, so that you had to read it there & couldn’t walk out with a copy – I’m not sure I ever would have seen a copy. Tho I figured out soon enough that starting a correspondence with Cid Corman was the best way to engage with the publication.

² The works I would love to see Eshleman translate is Lautréamont’s Maldoror, followed perhaps by some of Ponge’s prose poems.  

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

 

Five hours with “the famous Ed Baker

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Burmese blogger
sentenced to 20 years of prison
for a poem

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DuPlessis’ Creeley

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Jack Spicer’s My Vocabulary Did This to Me

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Women & mentorship:
Jena Osman & Sarah Dowling

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Bucky Fuller, poet

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Mullen, Gander, Harjo
join Henry Threadgill,
Muhal Richard Abrams,
Kara Walker & 44 more
as USA Fellows

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Katy Lederer’s reading tour
of the Bay Area

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The poems & poets of Ghana

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Forty Acres” & a few clichés:
A Derek Walcott poem for Barack Obama

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Talking with Barry Gifford

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A quarrel with Ford’s O’Hara

The Frank O’Hara video page

Thursday night in Philly,
under a full moon,
a Frank O’Hara celebration

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The New Adventures of Walt Whitman

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The FBI vs. Norman Mailer

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One reader’s report of
The Academy of American Poets’
Poets’ Forum

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A profile of Auden

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John Latta on Kent Johnson

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Talking with Elise Paschen

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Craft vs. chance
(Ray Bianchi is being seriously irascible)

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The uses of Frost
in Tobias Wolff

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Geoffrey Gatza’s Not So Fast Robespierre

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A lot of student blogs track classroom reading –
CoPoBlog is one of the best

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“The community of the English language”

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On the origin & entanglements
of names

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The most irritating phrases

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Apex Art, the franchise

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The painting of Lari Pittman

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Leave It to Beaver & the Louvre
(not a combination you were expecting)

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David Larsen poetry videos

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Who’s afraid of…?

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The Troublesome Reign & Lamentable Death
of Edward II

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Unlikely hybrid, Dr. Atomic

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Miriam Mkeba has passed away

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Sensuous Biped

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Psychology, torture, rhetoric

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

 

The absolute number of reviews that have come to a book of correspondence, the letters between Robert Lowell & Elizabeth Bishop, Words in Air, caught my eye. I don’t recall anything like this for the letters betwixt Robert Duncan & Denise Levertov, two other authors of approximately the same generation and at least the same stature as poets. But the Duncan-Levertov tome was published by Stanford, which lacks the PR engine (fueled principally by ad dollars) of FSG, the publisher of Words in Air.

In each volume, one might argue that there is one great poet & one very good one, the twist being that in the Duncan-Levertov correspondence, it is the male who is the transformative figure in American verse, whereas in the Lowell-Bishop volume the woman is clearly the better poet. While Robert Lowell was once taken for a major writer – he even got his visage onto the cover of Time magazine back in the 1960s – his writing has not worn well over the decades. Today he reads like a blurred rehearsal for his more brilliant colleagues, John Berryman & Sylvia Plath. Indeed, his best poetry often strikes me as terrifically talented but terribly marred by his problems & his meds – at his finest, he reads like Frank O’Hara on way too many Quaaludes. Not so Bishop. As even the recent collected that brought back many of the poems she preferred lost or discarded makes evident, she is a writer of the first rank, no ifs, &s or buts.

The Levertov-Duncan correspondence has the added advantage of documenting one of the most important developments in mid-century poetics, the cultural revolt of a major practitioner, as Levertov abandoned her roots in the New American poetry during the Vietnam period, moving left politically but right aesthetically, a contradictory set of impulses that was matched after a fashion by parallel revolts on the part of LeRoi Jones & Edward Dorn. None of the three would write like their youthful selves again, nor would they appear to have all that much in common with one another, other than their choice for apostasy.

The New American Poetry & the social turmoil surrounding the Vietnam debacle & civil rights movement had just as much impact on the other side of the avant line, as several key Quietists, many of them students of Lowell, went through changes just as profound as Jones/Baraka or Levertov: Robert Bly, Bill Merwin, Adrienne Rich, James Wright, even for a time Donald Hall all dropped the quest for mid-century rhymed verse in order to seek out a more authentic path forward. One might argue that even Lowell made a grudging nod in that direction, but it’s impossible to read Life Studies now without noticing just how much of that book is pure kitsch, For the Union Dead likewise. Or, for that matter, just how much both volumes seek to imitate Bishop’s chiseled verse, albeit with a shaky hand. Lowell’s best poetry would come later in his return to a sonnet form he truthfully understood.

This is the context I bring to a review, such as the one in the Los Angeles Times by Jamie James (presumably the Indonesian restauranter) that claims

Lowell was the most famous and influential American poet of the generation that came of age after World War II,

an assertion that is true only in a world in which time stops forever in 1955, prior to the arrival of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, The New American Poetry and a half century of other work. Such inaccurate hyperbole is not minor even in a world in which we’re told Sarah Palin was ready to become Commander-in-Chief, but it pales as nonsense when set alongside this opening passage of a review of the very same book by James Longenbach, a University of Rochester prof, in The Nation:

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell are the two most prominent members of the second wave of modern American poetry - the generation of poets who came of age after the groundbreaking achievements of T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens. Other poets of this second wave may seem more relevant: George Oppen's combination of formal adventurousness and emotional lyricism has been especially influential over the past twenty years, and the profligate energy of John Berryman (perhaps the most gifted poet of the second wave) has yet to be assimilated. But Bishop and Lowell continue to dominate the stories we tell about twentieth-century poetry ….

One wonders about the alternate universe Mr. Longenbach must inhabit, rather the way some old hardened Marxists somewhere may still debate the theoretical contributions of Enver Hoxa. Are the winters in Rochester really that hard? Is the city devoid of contemporary literature, or even work of a half century (or, for that matter, century) ago? Has nobody there heard, say, of Ted Berrigan?

Even more, one is taken back that The Nation, which in recent years has seemed to have widened its literary perspective from the inverted telescope of the Grace Schulman years, suddenly has reverted to this sort of nonsense. Nothing in the half-paragraph above is accurate. First, Bishop & Lowell are hardly figures of a second-wave of “modern American poetry,” so much as late inhabitants of a pre-modern poetics that struggled to stay relevant in a world in which Gertrude Stein & Ezra Pound had already rendered the 19th - (if not 16th-) century verities they upheld marginal & silly. Second, the trio of “groundbreaking” poets are conspicuously minor when set alongside the aforementioned Pound & Stein, not to mention Williams, Zukofsky, H.D., Langston Hughes & Hart Crane. Only Stevens can really be said to have functioned at that level. Eliot’s success, as has been evident now ever since the facsimile edition of The Waste Land came into print in 1971, was in fact the handiwork of Pound, whose radical editing made that poem interesting. One need only read The Four Quartets to get a sense of just how dreadful Eliot can be left to his own devices. Moore is a more interesting question in that she’s a much better writer. The tragic limit to her career was an internal need to play both sides of the aesthetic divide to her own (very short term) advantage. She was the American modernist the anti-moderns not only loved, but employed. (She was also, even more than Stevens or Crane, the first true “third-way” poet.) Williams, on the other hand, was an embarrassment, precisely because he was willing to point out the obvious – that these poets were not modernists, but rather holdovers from the previous regime who “dominate” only when their advocates airbrush history.

But airbrushing a half century of literature takes a lot of white-out in 2008. Still it goes on. If you look at Yale’s one online-to-the-public course in modern poetry, taught by English Dept. Chair Langdon Hammer, whose sessions are available in both video & audio formats, you will again see a curriculum of exclusion, of calculated, even willed ignorance. Three sessions on Frost, three on Yeats, three each on Eliot & Stevens, two on Crane, Auden, Moore & Bishop, but only one on Pound, one on Williams, one on Imagism, none on Stein, none on Zukofsky, none on the Objectivists, none on modernism in other languages.

Every time I point out the distortions of history that are the hallmark of the School of Quietude, I get howls of complaints from younger quietists. Their protests generally fall into two camps – one that asserts that such airbrushing of history never existed, the other conceding it, but arguing that those days are long behind us and that such self-lobotomizing approaches to writing no longer apply. But Hammer’s course was recorded in 2007 and these reviews of Bishop & Lowell’s correspondence are less than two weeks old. There may well be many younger poets of a more traditional bent who don’t share this will-to-denial that so characterizes these wannabe power-brokers, just as there are traditional poets – take Wendell Berry as an example or the writing of the late Thom Gunn – who continue to produce first-rate poetry.

But there is a larger and more vocal layer, of which Longenbach, James & Hammer are but three, who seem to want their world never to have changed (and who must be pained to realize that Tender Buttons was written over a century ago). Their approach to literary history is the equivalent of the unhappy child who sticks her fingers in her ears and hollers “La La La” when she doesn’t want to hear that it’s time to go to bed. Little do they realize just how long they’ve already been asleep.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

 

Filipina poets at the Library of Congress

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In DC on Monday night,
Rae Armantrout with Frank Bidart
at the Folger Library

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Poets’ panels produce pithy pronouncements

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Talking with Camille Roy

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William Burroughs & Jack Kerouac:
And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks

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How Jack Kerouac saved Lowell (& still is)

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Alexei Parshchikov’s “Oil
(with a complex translation history)

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Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

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Ange Mlinko on Susan Stewart

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The death of flarf

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Tuesday @ Belladonna in NYC,
Tracy Grinnell hosts “elder” Leslie Scalapino

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A group of Cave Canem alums
are writing a poem-a-day for a month

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The LA Times on Lowell & Bishop

The Washington Post

Helen Vendler (MP3)

The Nation

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Process,  Damn the Caesars,
& Delaware Memoranda

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Can libraries be saved?

Where German libraries got their books

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John Olson on aliteracy

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Not books vs. the net,
books and the net

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Writers group protests Jordanian poet’s arrest

The charges: atheism & blasphemy

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An empty chair for the Burmese poet

Censorship in Myanmar

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Talking with Dan Tobin

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Abe Lincoln:
the man who loved poetry

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Poems for President Obama

Ray Bianchi on poetry
in the Age of Obama

J.D. McClatchy reads “Election Day”
on PBS Newshour

Big news = Big type

Some recent language

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End quote

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Talking with Anne Waldman

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Reading Tender Buttons

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Nothing but quietude among
Publisher’s Weekly
“five best” poetry books of the year

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Frank O’Hara & Mark Doty

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The latest reviews from Cold Front

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Talking with Gary Metras

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Remembering James Liddy

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Using Eliot to defend Jack Gilbert

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Talking with David Grubb

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Slamminen Francais

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Against overcontrolling language

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Rilke the modernist

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Donald Hall’s new memoir

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Talking with Clare Cavanagh

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Talking with Seamus Heaney

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Scroll down to see the latest from
Ceptuetics Radio

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Talking with Kevin Prufer

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New European Poets

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Ha Jin’s The Writer as Migrant

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Blogging “is the new Romanticism

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The novelist least likely to blog

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Critic John Leonard has died

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Carlin Romano on Toni Morrison

San Francisco Chronicle

The Guardian

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There’s no such thing as a free book

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Studs Terkel &/or Carl Rakosi

Remembering Studs Terkel remembering

Howard Zinn on Studs

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A threat to Maqbool Fida Husain

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The Great American Songbook:
A Poem in Four Essays”

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The whole issue of
Turntable & Blue Light
is pretty damn impressive

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Screwing up Scrabble

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The films of Robert Frank

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Here today, Guam tomorrow

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From The New Yorker

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