Monday, November 21, 2005


Happy Birthday, APR

More than twenty years ago, on Walnut Street in Philadelphia, I climbed a steep and rickety set of stairs to the offices of the American Poetry Review. I had called earlier to pitch a short translation from the Italian--a piece Eugenio Montale had written on Michelangelo's verse--and one of the editors, David Bonanno, suggested I drop it by. At the time I felt as if I were ascending the steps to Parnassus (not the magazine). This was the APR, after all, with its iconoclastic tabloid format and glamorous author photos! Bonanno, seated at a desk by the door, took the manuscript from my trembling hand. A disappointing fact: he rejected the piece. A happier fact: the APR has continued to defy the death sentence that hangs over the head of every little magazine, and celebrated its 33rd birthday last week with a snazzy blowout at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center.

At the VIP reception beforehand--no, I'm not a VIP, but my pal Mark Stein managed to shoehorn Nina and me inside--a stellar cast of American poets prowled the room: John Ashbery, Robert Pinsky, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass, Rita Dove, Ed Hirsch. A few steps from the bar, clutching my champagne flute like festive prop, I almost failed to recognize Ashbery. He looks less studious without his glasses on, almost jolly, like the village toymaker in a Disney movie. I introduced myself and asked what he thought of Larissa MacFarquhar's recent profile of him in The New Yorker. "That's what everybody keeps asking me," he replied. "You know, I used to have this recurrent dream where I was the only naked person in a crowded room. That's exactly how I feel now."

Not wanting to be yet another media-driven tormentor, I asked him about Laura Riding's poetry. I had recently been reading Other Traditions, and was intrigued by his description of Riding's wretched life and thorny aesthetic: "As may be evident from what I have said so far, Laura Riding was what we would call today a 'control freak.' Her poetry, hedged about with caveats of every sort in the form of admonitory prefaces and postscripts, presents us with something like a minefield; one reads it always with a sensation of sirens and flashing red lights in the background." She was, Ashbery told me, a difficult person. "Many years ago, I sent her a couple of notes," he recalled. "Words of admiration." What he got in return were cantankerous shots across the bow. Ashbery went on to note that he was playing hooky from the National Book Awards ceremony in Manhattan. At this point I began to fear I was monopolizing the great man (no irony there), so I moved off, and heard another person ask him about the New Yorker article. Poor guy.

Nina and I reconvened near the cheese-and-cracker table. From there we could observe Robert Pinsky (grinning that benign alligator's grin) and Robert Hass and--Meryl Streep! The actress had agreed to juice up the proceedings by reading a selection of Emily Dickinson poems. She was wearing a long, white, tunic-like blouse, and her pop-cultural wattage promptly made everybody else in the room look like factory seconds. We watched her greet Jorie Graham with a soulful hug. Then we were all herded toward the stage downstairs, where the readings were to take place. On the way, we passed through a life-size display of bronze figures: the Founding Fathers, debating the Constitution. There was Benjamin Franklin, and John Hancock, and philandering Gouverneur Morris with his wooden leg--supposedly he did most of the actual writing. James Monroe was small. I could have beaten him up. But we couldn't linger, the poets were about to mount the stage.

Ed Hirsch, one of American poetry's great enthusiasts, did the introductions. Ashbery batted first. He read two short pieces from Where Shall I Wander (the same two he had read the previous night at an NBA curtain-raising event): "Ignorance of the Law Is No Excuse" and "Interesting People of Newfoundland." The second one in particular struck me as a signal event: the beginning of Ashbery's Garrison Keillor Phase. There's often an undercurrent of bemused, register-hopping comedy in Ashbery's work. But here he worked wonders with his deadpan delivery: people were laughing, as if poetry might actually give Larry David a run for the money.
Newfoundland is, or was, full of interesting people.
Like Larry, who would make a fool of himself on street corners
for a nickel. There was the Russian who called himself
the Grand Duke, and who was said to be a real duke from somewhere,
and the woman who frequently accompanied him on his rounds.
Doc Hanks, the sawbones, was a real good surgeon
when he wasn’t completely drunk, which was most of the time.
When only half drunk he could perform decent cranial surgery.
There was the blind man who never said anything
but produced spectral sounds on a musical saw.
Like Ashbery, most of the poets kept things light, or at least celebratory. Dove read three short pieces about Rosa Parks, chocolate, and ballroom dancing, plus a playful prose poem about the many deficiences of prose. Hirsch evinced a similar sweetness--there was one piece about eating cotton candy with his grandfather--and even the more politically charged utterances from Pinksy and Hass had their moments of rhetorical uplift. But Graham, reading from Overlord, was a definitive bummer. I give her credit for dipping into this metaphysical spin on the Normandy Invasion. Still, nothing dampens a party like a poem about a dying cat (from AIDS, no less), and Graham's tortured cadences left a lot of unhappy campers in the audience: "There is no excrement but she is trying to cover it / everywhere. Her claws make a horrible sound on the stone floor as she tries. / No no there is nothing there you have done nothing I say. It is some other /species. The compartment of species-distinction I'm in slides its small door / shut." Luckily Streep delivered a palate-cleanser before dinner. She read with the kind of control and dramatic modulation you seldom hear from poets (it's not their job, after all), and wrapped up with eight ecstatic lines and a look of relief:
If all the griefs I am to have
Would only come today,
I am so happy I believe
They'd laugh and run away.

If all the joys I am to have
Would only come today,
They could not be so big as this
That happens to me now.
At dinner, I asked the charming Rita Dove whether prose was really as bad as all that. "Oh, no," she said, laughing. "I've written plenty of prose--short stories, criticism, even a novel." Just joshing, then. Next question: what were the primary duties of the Poet Laureate, in which capacity she served from 1993 to 1995? To judge from her answer, the Poet Laureate makes it all up as he or she goes along. Dove dwelled with particular relish on a series of spots she had made for the Lifetime Channel: 30-second bits and bobs of poetry wedged between the usual tearjerking fare (I speak from experience).

I went back to my roast beef. My final poetic enounter came as the lights were being turned out. I chased down Robert Hass and told him how much I loved his Milosz translations--especially the expansive pleasures of A Treatise on Poetry. "There's another long poem I may try to translate," he told me. "It's called A Treatise on Morality." (Poking around the Web, I see that Traktat moralny first appeared in a Polish magazine in 1948.) Hass also shared an amusing anecdote about Milosz's appearance at a Poetry Flash reading in San Francisco: against that backdrop of ethnic militancy and New Age vapor, the late, great Nobel laureate was evidently something of an odd man out. Still, he read his poem, then returned to his seat next to Hass and inquired: "Did I do good?" Needless to say, he did good.

"There was the blind man who never said anything
but produced spectral sounds on a musical saw."

Not blind and not a man, but produces spectral sounds on a musical saw none-the-less:
Most Monday afternoons at the Times Square subway station in NYC
(and on line any time:
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