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Howling Poetry

April. National Poetry Month. And, we're howling here at Powell's. If you haven't had a look at our poetry writing contest to mark this special month of celebration and effusion, please do so.

Now, onto the books...

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I have a real thing for Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Publisher of Howl, author of A Coney Island of the Mind (for more on that stellar classic, see below), founder of City Lights Publishers and the legendary City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, and defender of civil and human rights both at home and internationally, Ferlinghetti is an honest to God American original. I first read him while in my early 20s, and he changed my life. Poetry that was both ecstatically visionary and eminently readable, that was profoundly political and profoundly humane — he had me in his hand from the word "go."

And, now I'm in possession of a copy of Poetry as Insurgent Art, a tiny book that contains 90 pages of short thoughts on the role of poets and poetry in society, followed by the longer texts of his rightly famous (or infamous) "Populist Manifestos" I and II.

Ferlinghetti's maxims on poetry and the role of the poet are brief and to the point:

"Be a wolf in the sheepfold of silence."

"If you have to teach poetry, strike your blackboard with the chalk of light."

They're also intensely lyrical, politically incendiary, and they continually champion both the individual and collective imagination, as one would expect from this maverick maven of the written word.

"Don't ever believe poetry is irrelevant in dark times."

"Look for the permanent in the evanescent and fleeting."

"Say the unsayable, make the invisible visible."

This is a book not just for the writers of poetry, but for its readers, as well, an instruction manual in right living and thorough-going engagement with life at its fullest and richest.

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Speaking of Ferlinghetti, I would be doing you a disservice were I not to point out that this year marks the 50th anniversary of A Coney Island of the Mind. This luminous book, one of the great moments of the Beat movement, has just been reissued by New Directions in a special commemorative hardcover edition for $23.95. The thing that makes this release special — while not for a moment forgetting that it's special for its contents alone — is that it includes a CD of Ferlinghetti reading the 29 poems of the book's title section along with selections from an earlier book, Pictures of the Gone World. A Coney Island of the Mind, by the way, has over a million copies in print.

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William Stafford is about as close to a household name as one gets with poetry in the Pacific Northwest. His books are read widely, and appreciated even by people who don't "get" poetry. Let it be said, his books are a strong argument that poetry can be read and loved by anyone.

It's my pleasure, then, to bring to your attention the publication of Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford, 1937-1947, a collection of 176 of Stafford's early poems. This book not only charts the development of the art of one of our greatest writers, but it paints a fascinating portrait of the interior and exterior life of a man willing to live according to fundamental principles in a world gone mad. These poems, composed between 1937 and 1947, came to life primarily as a poetry of witness. Stafford, you see, was a conscientious objector during World War II, and served in a series of work camps under the auspices of Civilian Public Service as an alternative to going to war.

This wasn't an easy road to take. Stafford's brother was a bomber pilot, and Stafford, for the most part, came to his convictions independently of his family and upbringing. However, come to them he did, and this book is a riveting testament to his courage and independence of mind.

Don't fear, though, that this book will bludgeon you with a blaring, didactic political sensibility. These poems are subtle and beautiful, questing and questioning; they explore the terrain of a unique life lived in relationship with others and with the planet in a way that is compelling and true. Take, for instance, this poem, titled "Members of the Kingdom":

All over the world meeting briefly,
hunting fragile kingdoms like snow empires on the wind,
go a smoldering few whose eyes are smoke.
And often they call despair for their kind,
a grating of words across the rough of the world-
and then comes the polishing sound of their laughter,
baling the gust and building on the wind.

This beautiful collection is graced with a wonderfully rich and informative introduction by its editor, Fred Marchant. The poems will surprise you; the experiments in form are enough to raise a few eyebrows, I think, but what more could one expect of an aspiring poet than to experiment with all the tools appropriate to his or her art?

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I've been reading Stephen Berg for years, ever since I discovered his incredible book, With Akhmatova at the Black Gates. His latest book is Cuckoo's Blood: Versions of Zen Poetry from Copper Canyon Press, one of the nation's truly great publishers.

Berg's versions are utterly original, breathtaking, audacious. He doesn't so much translate a poem as totally reconstruct it. And, his take is radical. These poems — versions — are wild and tumultuous, fragmentary and elliptical. They challenge the reader to rise to new heights, to engage with the poem in a way that demands total presence, total readiness to be transformed in the image of something completely new.

They're also haunting and beautiful. Take for instance, this fragment from "Dogen":

I'm afraid to stop
by the little brook
in the valley
because maybe my shadow will
flow into the world

Or this from "Bankei":

die live
day and night here
listen the world's
your hand

I suspect that this is one of those books that will reward constant re-readings, blessing the reader with new insights, new moments of poetic epiphany, with each visit.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Coney Island of the Mind Used Trade Paper $7.00
  2. Poetry as Insurgent Art Used Hardcover $9.95
  3. A Coney Island of the Mind with CD... Used Hardcover $12.95
  4. Another World Instead: The Early... New Hardcover $22.25
  5. Cuckoo's Blood: Versions of Zen Poetry Used Trade Paper $4.95

2 Responses to "Howling Poetry"

    Adrienne April 11th, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    Thank you Chris for your wonderful poetry blogs. They are beautiful and poetic.

    Sarah June 4th, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    Re: William Stafford

    I know this blog is over a year old, and my comment will probably not be seen by anyone, however I wanted to correct something in your blog that is often misstated.

    (1) "This wasn't an easy road to take. Stafford's brother was a bomber pilot ...

    Stafford's brother was my father, and although he was in the Air Force during WWII, he was not a "bomber pilot" and in fact never went overseas. Not sure who originally started saying this, but I have heard it and read it many times in the context of discussing Bill's being a conscientious objector. First time I heard it was in something Robert Bly wrote or said -- I am not a fan of Robert Bly, and perhaps that is why it bothered me so and continues to do so. My father was in fact very proud of Bill's decision to be a conscientious objector, and he used to give copies of "Down in my Heart" to everyone he knew.

    (2) "for the most part, [Stafford] came to his convictions independently of his family and upbringing."

    Also not true. In fact my father was for some time not allowed to become a member of the Boy Scouts because his father felt the organization and its rituals were too militaristic.

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