Let’s get this party started: current U.S. Poet Laureate and no. 1 Seed Phil Levine knocks heads with Joanna Klink

Before we get to the Levine/Klink contest, here’s the North Bracket:

1. Philip Levine
2. Richard Wilbur
3. Dana Gioia
4. Margaret Atwood
5. Glyn Maxwell
6. Louise Gluck
7. Frank Bidart
8.  Mark Strand
9. Cornelius Eady
10. Alice Oswald
11. Peter Gizzi
12. Stephen Dunn
13. Bin Ramke
14. Brenda Shaughnessy
15. Anne Waldman
16. Joanna Klink

Levine has 4 poems in the Dove anthology.   He goes with the first one in Round One:


It’s wonderful how I jog
on four honed-down ivory toes
my massive buttocks slipping
like oiled parts with each light step.
I’m to market. I can smell
the sour, grooved block, I can smell
the blade that opens the hole
and the pudgy white fingers
that shake out the intestines
like a hankie. In my dreams
the snouts drool on the marble,
suffering children, suffering flies,
suffering the consumers
who won’t meet their steady eyes
for fear they could see. The boy
who drives me along believes
that any moment I’ll fall
on my side and drum my toes
like a typewriter or squeal
and shit like a new housewife
discovering television,
or that I’ll turn like a beast
cleverly to hook his teeth
with my teeth. No. Not this pig.
Animals die, and they are murdered by humans, is what the poet, taking on the persona of a pig, is telling us in his poem, anticipating that we—“consumers” of pigs or poems—will not be able to look, or care to look, at pig-or-poems-of-truth.  The poet, perhaps, overestimates the importance of his truth in his poem.   Formally, the poem sparkles with a certain swiftness—we go from “jog” to “pig” in a wink, and we cannot deny the poem has a certain pull on us.
Joanna Klink, born in Iowa City, Iowa, and Jorie Graham’s former babysitter, defends herself with this poem (from Dove’s anthology):
Shoulder me up. Drink careless down, for flinching
ask, break, call skimming, be slight then, be soon.
Would, wire air back to you, would. Would wind you
still, lift clear to you sitting. Sheeted around you
would care, could single you somehow, warm for floor-
weight own hurt to you, sinking. Though your arms hold:
just sun. I can’t bring you. So tire to me quickly,
dumb solving cushions. Would spare wrists to you, skimming.
What sudden gives, what bent back look lifting (not my legs
here on me, nor the still sitting). For glass bowl bent over
caring. Keeps clear to tasting but warm to me, singing.
What serves then slips (orange, cold-orange, cannot spare
breaking). What shouldn’t bend, what part offer, what fruit
sweet to flinching. Though cold cancels can sit can
reach. Does not know. But holds. But holds out, feeling.
This poem sounds like some kind of hidden declaration of love; about sex, perhaps?  A torrid affair, a hopeless love affair…we’re not sure.
Levine 88, Klink 67


Rita Dove: to be young and famous!

The Scarriet editors, with the help of Marla Muse—

Marla Muse: Hi.

Hi, Marla. —are in the process of choosing the 64 poets who will rumble for the championship this year.  How do we choose?

MM: May I speak?

In matters of poetry, the Muse should always speak.

MM: Thank you. Public contests exist for the audience, not the participants.  So we pick big names.

Wait a minute—that doesn’t make any sense!

MM: 63 poets have to lose.  Unknown poets—most of our audience—envy big name poets; our audience is guaranteed to enjoy themselves—and that’s the whole point.

But what’s a “big name” in poetry these days?

MM: Someone born in 1927, like John Ashbery, for instance.

The year Babe Ruth hit 60 homeruns for the New York Yankees.

MM: Don’t try and be poetic.  Don’t distract.  Don’t show off.  Let me make my point.

Sorry, Marla.

MM: Go back a little further. Wallace Stevens was 20, and it was still the 19th century.  But 1927 is probably far back enough.  There are not too many famous poets in Rita Dove’s recent 20th Century Poetry anthology born after 1900.  Before 1900, you’ve got Frost, T.S. Eliot, Edna Millay, E.E. Cummings, and then if you want to throw in Stevens, Williams, Pound, and Stein, you may.  But after 1900—

There’s lots, right?

MM: The bulk were born between 1925 and 1940—old enough to still be living and old enough to have won plenty of awards.  But none are household words, like Robert Frost or E.E. Cummings; none are really famous. Then there’s Billy Collins born in 1941; after that, no one is even close to being famous, not even a little bit.

What a cynical analysis!

MM: You are being sentimental.  Time and fame are not cynical; they just are.  The topic is not poetry, but poets.

And poets are made of flesh.

MM: Exactly.  And Helen Vendler and Rita Dove are flesh and their fight, I feel, was based on age.  Let’s look at the best known poets by decade of birth in Dove’s book:

1860s: Edgar Lee Masters
1870s: Robert Frost
1880s: T.S. Eliot
1890s: E.E. Cummings
1900s: W.H. Auden  (or Theodore Roethke)
1910s: Elizabeth Bishop  (or John Berryman)
1920s: Anne Sexton  (Allen Ginsberg not in Dove’s anthology)
1930s: Amiri Baraka  (Sylvia Plath not in Dove’s anthology)
1940s: Billy Collins
1950s: Rita Dove  (or Jorie Graham)
1960s: Sherman Alexie  (or Joanna Klink)
1970s: Kevin Young

No poet born in the 20th century is famous.  Except maybe Anne Sexton—because she committed suicide.

Marla, that’s depressing.  So the anthologist, Rita Dove, is the most famous American poet born in the 1950s?

MM: Who would you choose instead? Cathy Song?

What about Paul Muldoon?

MM: We speak of fame, here, that is so minute, that a reader holding this anthology in their hands will feel, at that moment, that Rita Dove is the most famous poet born in the 1950s.

OK, I see your point.

MM: The most famous poet in Dove’s anthology born in the ’50s might possibly be Jorie Graham, and born in the 60s?  Jorie Graham’s baby-sitter, Joanna Klink.  Dove, born in 1952, has 40 poets represented in her anthology born between 1880 and 1919—and 26 born between 1950 and 1954; the biggest single group of poets in the anthology were born around the same time as Dove herself, including Iowa classmates, Joy Harjo and Sandra Cisneros.


MM: Finally, Vendler was born in the 1930s, and Amiri Baraka is the best known American poet (from political controversy) born in the 1930s from Dove’s anthology.  Given Vendler’s expressed views on Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry in the New York Review of Books that Dove’s anthology was a little too affirmative action, these dates have to make Ms. Vendler wonder.  Poets included, like Walcott, Clifton, and Lourde were also born in the ’30s; Vendler has to travel back to almost the middle of the 19th century to find the birth date of her beloved poet, Wallace Stevens.  This can’t help but make Vendler feel like the game is being lost.

Dove has picked good poems, but that doesn’t change the fact that her anthology feels very much driven by agenda rather than poetry.

MM: We shouldn’t get into that controversy.  Dove couldn’t help what she did, for anthologies are always about poets, not poetry.

LIfe too, is about poets, not poetry.  This is why we need to forgive Dove.

MM: Big names.

Let the games begin!  Stay tuned for the East Brackets.


Seen from afterward the time appears to have been
all of a piece which of course it was but how seldom
it seemed that way when it was still happening and was
the air through which I saw it as I went on thinking
of somewhere else in some other time whether gone
or never to arrive and so it was divided
however long I was living it and I was where
it kept coming together and where it kept moving apart
while home was a knowledge that did not suit every occasion
but remained familiar and foreign as the untitled days
and what I knew better than to expect followed me
into the garden and I would stand with friends among
the summer oaks and be a city in a different
age and the dread news arrived on the morning when the
plum trees
opened into silent flower and I could not let go
of what I longed to be gone from and it would be that way
without end I thought unfinished and divided
by nature and then a voice would call from the field
in the evening or the fox would bark in the cold night
and that instant with each of its stars just where it was
in its unreturning course would appear even then
entire and itself the way it all looks from afterward.

HARVARD, April 30, 2010. Jorie Graham was worried about the oil slick.  She said it was “extraordinary” that W.S. Merwin was coming to visit the “campus” and especially during “these days.”  She told everyone to be very quiet.  Then she had eight of her poetry students, all in a line, recite, robot-like, Merwin’s old poetry from the early 1960s.   The poems all sounded alike and they were read in the same sort of monotone, with slight feeling, and the students looked and sounded a bit uncomfortable—whether it was from Jorie Graham’s presence or from the oil slick moving towards the Louisiana coast, it was hard to tell.  It wasn’t from the poems themselves, however, which rolled off their tongues, understood, or not understood, in this line or that.   The recitations had a certain degree of quiet elegance, even when uttered with an air of disdainful Crimson confidence; Merwin’s poetry is always quietly elegant, if not much more.

The audience was certainly quiet; there was hardly a peep for the hour and a half presentation.  No one seemed to register any feeling or thought, for there was very little feeling or thinking expressed in the room, not when Merwin made his ‘man is destroying the earth’ pitch, which was expected, nor when he later apologized for sounding ‘preachy,’ which he ‘hated,’ because his father was a minister, he said, and he (the poet) had always rebelled against that vibe.

The audience was very quiet; it was a respectful ‘let the old guy rant’ silence, and Merwin felt it, no doubt, which was why he later apologized.  It was Jorie who set the tone, however: “Oh!  The oil slick!”  “Turn off your cell phones, please, while my students read their poetry of homage!”  It was really quite horrible.  And then in-between: Joanna Klink’s actual introduction of the poet, endless and cliche-ridden, with her smiley-faced: “Merwin has won every prize.  He’s won them all!” 

The poetry, frankly, didn’t help.  It couldn’t rise above the oppressive occasion.  Most of the time the audience hadn’t the faintest idea what the poetry was saying.  Merwin’s poetry doesn’t say very much; it drifts from one simile to the next, the metaphors not explaining or embellishing, as with Shakespeare; Merwin’s metaphors compare and philosophize in a highly mystical way; Merwin’s poetry is existential; it’s all about what not-knowing feels like, and, when read without punctuation, that disembodied voice can be very effective, since disembodiment is really what Merwin is about—there’s really very little actual life in Merwin’s poems.  (I had heard Shakespeare’s work read at a noisy cafe open-mike the evening prior and the contrast was startling.)  Merwin has a wonderful, human, dramatic speaking voice and when he reads his poetry aloud, he reads very much with punctuation; his voice rises,  falls, and pauses in all the right places, and thus humanizes the poetry, which scatters the mist from it and reveals its depressive quality, its humorless, dull, reflective, passivity.  I looked around at the young faces in the room and noticed they were blank, and bored.

When the students read Merwin’s early 1960s poetry, I counted the word “like” until I lost count.  The passage quoted above was selected for its special excellence from “The Vixen,” a more recent book (1996) in a review by Richard Howard.  This passage does not contain the word “like” at all, so in that regard Merwin cleaned up his act; he rid himself of that indulgence; one hears in the excerpt from “The Vixen” verbs rather than simile.  But it’s still virtuous, vague, metaphysical, sleepy Merwin.

The evening was boring.  As soon as Merwin stopped reading, his Harvard hosts surrounded him. 

This was a Harvard event. 

It was certainly not open-mike Shakespeare, while the dishes rattled. 

It was more about comfort than rattle.

At one point in that deathly silence in the Thompson room at the Barker Center, when Merwin first stood up and picked up Jorie’s reference to the oil slick, he sort of looked over at her and her little group, and said, with a little shrug and a smile, “This is nothing new.  Man has always been destroying the earth.”

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