Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Peaceful Assembly and the Poets' Corner

James Baldwin

I went to New York again early in the month to participate in the ceremony whereby James Baldwin was inducted into the Poets’ Corner at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights. 

This was my first New York neighborhood (I enrolled in graduate school at Columbia in 1965), and the Cathedral, like all the environs thereabouts, is a familiar reference point to me.  Sunday mornings in those years, I used to take walks in Harlem, at a time when things were quiet.  There’s a poem about those walks in my book A Call in the Midst of the Crowd. Harlem in 1965 was quite different from what it is now.  It’s easy for me to imagine James Baldwin as a boy venturing into Morningside Park, looking up at the vast unfinished cathedral overlooking it, and wondering what went on there. Knowing what I do about him, I’m certain that he came to have a look inside, though I can’t quite imagine what he must have thought about it.

On the other hand I take it for granted that he sympathized with the students at Columbia University who in May of 1968 went on strike and occupied Columbia’s Low Library to protest university plans to annex part of Morningside Park and build a gym there.  It was an egregious, imperial move to take away part of a park that residents in west Harlem used every day.  CU said it would open the gym to non-university residents, but we will never know if the plan would have been put into effect because the project was abandoned in the face of student and community opposition.  Unfortunately, this came only after Grayson Kirk, CU’s president, had ordered the buildings cleared of occupying students, a raid performed by the NYPD with no restraint at all.  During clearance, large numbers of students were hit repeatedly with nightsticks or truncheons, including my friend the poet David Shapiro. It happened that I was on my Fulbright year in Paris when this occurred, so I wasn’t part of it, except as an appalled observer from across the Atlantic.  Instead, I had the May uprisings in Paris in that same spring to live through.  Details about both events can be found in the long narrative poem Notes from a Child of Paradise (1984), which retells my life in the years 1965 to 1969.                                                                                                                                                                                                    

David Shapiro in Kirk's Office, May 1968

To return to Baldwin and the Cathedral: he was as an adult awarded the Cathedral’s Centennial Medal in 1974, and in December of 1987, his funeral was held there.  Induction into the Poets’ Corner would seem to be the next logical step. Marilyn Nelson was appointed the Cathedral’s Poet in Residence in 2011 and earlier this year asked me to serve a five-year term as one of the electors for the Poets’ Corner, which I was glad to do.  Baldwin was chosen as this year’s new “poet,” though poetry is only a minor part of his oeuvre as a writer. The Corner includes novelists (indeed, our most famous) as well as poets. A brief inscription from the inducted writer is always placed under the name, and the electors settled on this for Baldwin: “Artists are here to disturb the peace.”  Then plans were made for an induction and a celebration on November 6th and 7th.

The event on Sunday the 6th was a liturgical service, with the Cathedral choir singing arrangements of the spiritual songs, “A Balm in Gilead,” “Deep River,” and “Steal Away to Jesus.”  There were prayers, a psalm, and congregational hymns.  The poet Jericho Brown read, I read (the conclusion of his essay “Notes of a Native Son), and David Leeming, Baldwin’s biographer, spoke about the author, whom he knew personally, in general terms. The inductee’s great-nephew Trevor Baldwin spoke feelingly about his famous relative, then we had a brief homily-eulogy from the Dean of the Cathedral, James Kowalski, as well as words of greeting from Marilyn. At the end we processed to the rear of the church to the side chapel where the Corner is, and Marilyn unveiled the inscribed stone. Flashbulbs went off, and then the choir sang “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and it was over.  Elizabeth Macklin, whom I’d invited to the ceremony, came up, and I introduced her to Marilyn.  Quincy Troupe was there and introduced himself, but I reminded him we’d met at the Writing Division at Columbia many years ago. I spoke briefly to Cynthia Zarin and then to Jaime Manrique, but each had to rush off to other events. Then someone introduced me to Patricia Spears Jones, whom I’d only known through Facebook before. Ceremony completed, we walked over to the Cathedral House where there was a buffet dinner for all participants.

The celebration the following night was smaller, unassisted by the choir and unliturgical.  Dean Kowalksi participated but only briefly.  Readers/speakers were Sharan Strange, Patricia Smith, Thomas Sayers Ellis, myself, Quincy Troupe, and Dr. James Cone, a professor of religion. Also, Marilyn, who read Baldwin texts to the accompaniment of a vibraphone.  We weren’t seated in the choir and everything was conducted with less formality than on the previous evening.  At rthe conclusion, an amplified recording of Baldwin singing the hymn “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” was played in the transept and a professional singer chimed in with her responsive asides as his voice resonated through the building. A haunting moment.  Afterwards, I spoke to Patricia Smith, whom I hadn’t met face to face before, only online, but we had a good-humored “live” conversation. My friend and host in New York Walter Brown came with me for the buffet meal at Cathedral House afterward.

I went to the Metropolitan Museum to see the new rooms for the Met’s collection of Islamic art and found amazingly beautiful examples of art in ceramic, metal, weaving, painting, wood and stone sculpture, glass, and calligraphy.  Though I can’t read Arabic, the wonderful varieties of Arabic script fascinate me, and I have a special liking for Kufic. It’s worth noting that the proscription against representation was often ignored in the history of Islamic art, so that we have the beautiful renderings of people and animals in the small Mughal paintings.  Someof the rugs, too, go beyond abstract geometry and give us stylized animal figures.  Islam is a flexible tradition, historically incorporating a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices, and that remains true today.
While I was in town I visited Zuccotti Square again, glad to see that Occupy Wall Street was in good shape.  This was only a few days before participants were banned from staying there overnight, and since then I’ve been distressed that police efforts to restrict or disperse demonstrations in New York and elsewhere have become violent.  Teargas, pepper spray, and unwarranted use of what they now call “batons.”   All of this has become epidemic, and it must stop.  I wonder if authorities realize that any person who is gassed or beaten by police becomes radicalized for life.  Also, any demonstrator who witnesses brutality like this.  During the past couple of weeks, riot police have themselves in effect rioted, particularly in Oakland at on the campus of UC Davis.  A smear campaign sponsored by conservative interests has tried to depict the demonstrators as lazy, spoiled youth, espousing unsanitary conditions, drugs, and free love.  The reality is very different, but when mud is slung, some of it always sticks, influencing he conduct of law enforcement officers.  Many policemen have working class backgrounds, and class anger can be stirred up among them if the hot-button libels have been previously planted in their minds.  (But how can any police officer, no matter how angry, feel justified pepper-spraying the face of an 84-year old woman, as happened ten days ago?) I saw these same developments back in the 1960s. It’s all depressingly familiar. Dr. King’s civil rights movement was libeled and suffered repressive action from misguided law enforcement, as well as vigilante attacks.  He persisted and eventually lost his life. There is also the horrifying instance of the Kent State killings, carried out, incredibly enough, by the National Guardsmen.  To engage in peaceful assembly is a risky undertaking, not to be undertaken lightly in a country where violence is taken for granted.  But as Baldwin reminded us, “Artists are here to disturb the peace.” And not artists alone, but all people concerned with social justice in a climate where it has been forced to take a back seat to the national addiction to wealth, no matter the cost of that pursuit to social cohesiveness, fair dealing, and responsible freedom.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Visits from Friends, Wall Street Occupied

A friend called from London this weekend and seemed disappointed that I hadn’t been posting anything on this blog.  I’ll be self-indulgent and blame the time-consuming process of buying and then furnishing a condo in Rhode Island, near Westerly.  Moving, unpacking, and arranging are taxing enterprises: where to put the sofa, and which shelf for which books, all of that.  Meanwhile, I’ve had visits from several poets—Wendy Battin from Mystic, Benjamin Grossberg from Hartford, Chard de Niord down from Providence, Jason Roush from Boston, Peter Covino from Kingstown, where he has just been tenured at URI, and Doretta Wildes from Middletown.  (Actually Doretta is doing more fiction nowadays, her first novel Rinse Cycle out this past summer.)  Then Leslie McGrath, coming up from North Stonington for a daytrip we made to Providence—but there’s more about that further on.

I went down to New York in early October, and after I’d greeted my host Walter Brown, I went down to Liberty Plaza (or Zuccotti Square) to join in the Occupy Wall Street demonstration.  An energizing experience, to understate.  During the week following, the Occupy movement went global, with significant demonstrations in London, Paris, Hong Kong, and other cities across the USA.  Critics of the movement say it has no defined goals.  But what it has done is to alert the distressed majority to facts they may not have known before, for example, that 1% of the US population controls 40% of the nation’s wealth, or that a typical CEO’s salary is 900 times that of a typical worker in his company.  The electorate has begun to see that Congress is in the hands of the donors to election campaigns, a situation made worse by the Supreme Court decision to allow unlimited and anonymous donations to campaigns.  The donors need not even be US citizens.  Electoral reform is urgent, otherwise Big Money will continue to make laws for us by remote control.  A brief description I wrote of Occupy Wall Street is found on the Occupy Writers site here:


I’d reserved a couple of tickets for the 9/11 Memorial on October 11, exactly one month after the inaugural ceremony.  Walter and I picked them up around 4:00, then walked some distance down to the intake site on Thames Street.  The path leading inside runs between walls of blue-painted plywood, with lots of twists and turns, your ticket inspected at several checkpoints, until you reach the security portal, identical to an air terminal security check.  Off come your belt and shoes, etc. Once you’re reassembled, there’s a bit more walking, and finally you are in the park, among young oak trees and low, granite benches.  We walked to the edge of the south pool, which duplicates the “footprint” of the destroyed building, a deep reservoir outlined by a smooth bronze rim inscribed with the names of those who died.  Inside that rim is a shelf filled with water that flows down all four sides in a considerable drop to the lower level. The scale is enormous.  If the pool qualifies as a fountain, it must be the world’s largest.  A much smaller square cistern is sunk in the center, and water proceeds to flow into it also.  Sinister detail: you can’t, from the outer rim, see the bottom of this cistern. There’s no upward jet here, the governing direction is down, flowing water vanishing earthward as into the underworld.  Did I say that the walls of the entire pool are black?  They are. You can’t see the ensemble without encroaching feelings of gloom.  Add to that the damp, overcast, misty day we had, and a somber experience it was, all told. 

We walked to the north pool, which was exactly like the south.  As I was reading the names I came across the name of a friend’s sister, whom I knew had died on the fateful day.  A strange moment, when everything seemed to go very quiet. I wondered how inevitable it was to find that name, among so many—Anglo, Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish, Arab, Latino.  Some of the names had little flags stuck in the inscribed letters, others had roses.  It’s a wrenching experience to see those because it’s clear that family and friends had left them as some sort of apotropaic gesture made against finality.

The museum is still under construction as well as two high-rise office buildings, the first of which will, once again, be taller than the Empire State. You might question the wisdom of that Babelian plan, though extraordinary construction precautions have been taken to countervail any attack and demolition.  I agreed with Walter that the new buildings looked undistinguished, as architecture.  Of course I’ll return when construction is complete for another look.  If it seems I have an unusual interest in the 9/11 site, maybe this poem written several months after the calamity will make that interest understandable:


From there Walter (the person named as “W” in the poem) walked to the Occupy Wall Street demonstration and mingled in the crowd for a while.  One group of Jewish demonstrators held up a sign saying that the Sukkot holiday required the faithful to live in temporary shelters for several days, and that in their estimation staying in Zuccotto Square was a way to enact the ritual of the holiday.  This was not the only pleasing sign held up.  Creative slogans were to be everywhere, and the human composition was varied as to age and ethnicity. History in the making.

In the days after, I had lunch with Grace Schulman and saw with her the exhibition of Indian paintings from the Mugal period at the Metropolitan. I also spent an hour at the offices of The Hudson Review with Paula Deitz, who regrettably couldn’t come with me to see the exhibition of Stieglitz’s art collection (also at the Met.)  Add to these events several long walks through various neighborhoods of the city, and the visit can only be called full and stimulating, with plenty of matter for reflection.

I mentioned that poet Leslie McGrath had driven up the following week to see my new place and then to continue on to Providence. Not for shopping or entertainment, but to take part in Occupy Providence and to join the poet Doug Anderson, whom I knew through Facebook but had never met in person.  We had an enlivening couple of hours together, but suppose I refer you to the description Leslie wrote about our day for the Best American Poetry blog. She also asked Doug and me to add a few words, which we did.  Here is the link:


There is more that could be said, but for a blog post this one is moving toward epic length, so I will just conclude with a “To Be Continued.” 

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Rhode Island, Boston, and Robert Pinsky

Since returning from six months in London to the US in early April, I’ve had an outpatient operation to free a pinched nerve in the spine that was causing back and leg pain.  There needed to be some down time for recovery, and so, apart from physical therapy to regain strength, I haven’t done much here in southern Rhode Island except rest and make excursions to the seashore, never far away in the Ocean State.  People sometimes express curiosity as to why I live in the smallest of the fifty when I’m in the US and "smallest" is in itself part of the answer.  It seems I’ve come to adopt a contrarian approach to a lot of things. Why?  Because the standard m.o. for our supposed American dreams, goals and deeds, active for a century, has led us to the brink of failure as a nation. The American Way is to do everything on the biggest and most expensive scale possible.  
The representative American believes in cutthroat competition, getting rich (especially by bonuses), driving as fast and as rudely and dangerously as you can to shave ten seconds off a twenty-minute trip, the accumulation of as many toys as possible before one's expiration date. The fundamental attitude is, “Get out of the way, because I am the best.”  So for me small is good, just as non-competitive is good. I own practically nothing, neither house nor car, just a few books, CDs, clothes, and a computer.  I rent, I use public transport, and the public library. I don’t suffer from stress, and I don’t expect a lot of attention to be paid to me. Competition is the micro version of the macro wars that have become so popular lately as powerful individuals and nations of the world try to beat each other out of available goods and services instead of cooperating in a reciprocally interested way. The result hasn’t been good either for the modern West or for the exploited planet.  So why not take the opposite tack from what has been considered proper conduct and suitable aspiration up to now? Why not care less about conventional measures of success?  If we’re male, why not share power with women, and if white, with people of color?  Possibly we’d see some real improvement in the way things are going. To return to the micro level, it’s nice if I can write something that is topnotch, but it’s equally nice if someone else does. 

The one public event of the past month was an appearance at the New England Institute of Art in Brrookline. To arrange the reading, my Cambridge/Boston friend Jason Roush had put me in touch with David Blair, who teaches creative writing there and we agreed on a May 24th date.  I got to Boston shortly after eleven on that day and walked outside South Station to where Robert Pinsky, a friend for more than three decades now, was expecting me in his black car.  He looked well, and off we drove to for lunch in Cambridge at a Taiwanese place Robert said the novelist Ha Jin had recommended to him.  I always enjoy seeing Robert, partly because of his quick, warm intelligence and partly because it’s a pleasure to know someone generally recognized as among the very small number of world-class American poets of our era.  If his name doesn’t appear on the roster of Pultizer, NBA, or NBBC prizewinners, that’s not the fault of his work.  He has just published a magisterial Selected Poems, which, even so, I told him I found too severely pruned. I’d have preferred a more inclusive volume, but he reminded me that the earlier books are all in print, and said he wanted to put out an affordable book that would serve as an introduction to new readers.  Fair enough.

Robert Pinsky

To reread his startlingly original work for me is to relive my experience as a poet going back nearly four decades.  Robert’s first book, Sadness and Hapiness appeared in 1976, the same year as mine (titled All Roads at Once).  The YMHA in New York had in those years a program called “Introduction,” whereby four books were chosen by senior poets as the best first books of the year. The 1976 poets were Tess Gallagher, Maura Stanton, Robert, and myself. We were all invited to read at the Y, and that was the occasion when Robert and I first met. I immediately recognized him as an important new talent, and wanted to be his friend. Actually, I wrote a detailed review of his second book, An Explanation of America (collected later in a book of essays titled The Metamorphoses of Metaphor).  And then in the 90s, I wrote a review of The Figured Wheel, which was Robert’s first collected poems.  Over the years, we’ve kept in touch and I remember many glowing reunions, beginning with an evening dedicated to American poetry at the White House during the Carter Administration.  That’s when I met Ellen, to whom Robert is married. I also recall seeing him in Berkley, when he taught there, and in Oklahoma, when I was teaching at the U. of Tulsa, and he was the featured poet in the Cimarron Review literary festival.  Another time I called on him at his summer place in Truro.  I’ve also attended many readings of his, and we’ve met in Boston a couple of times.  I don’t know how Robert keeps on the go as much as he does. Apart from his writing, he gives several readings every month, keeps in touch with the Favorite Poem Project (which he launched when he was Poet Laureate), and teaches writing at B.U.  For a couple of years now, he has been giving poetry readings accompanied by a jazz combo, a format that was popular among the Beat poets back in the 1950s, but then became rare: the Rebirth of the Cool in the 21st century, we might say.  Robert is also poetry editor at Slate magazine, where he emcees online forums about classic poems.  As one of the few contemporary poets who has a regular doctoral degree in English lit (his grad school mentor was Yvor Winters), Robert knows the tradition very well and has a special affinity for Renaissance figures like Fulke Greville and the 19th century poet Landor, about whom he write an engaging critical book.  

He seemed glad for me that the spinal operation was a success.  We talked about mutual friends, discussed new books, exchanged a few jokes. And that was our meeting. He dropped me off near Harvard Square, as I had some free time before the next appointment.  I strolled around the Square, noting familiar landmarks, and dropped in at Grolier Books on Plympton Street to introduce myself to the new proprietor, a friendly woman named Carol Menkiti. Then it was time to go to Brookline Village, where Jason Roush was waiting for me.   I hadn’t seen Jason since March when he came to lunch in London (he makes an annual trip there during spring break).  Jason was introduced to this blog back in April of 2009, for those who want to look him up, and his books are available online at Amazon.  Teaching courses now at the NIE, he had planned for me to speak to one of them that afternoon, and so I did, a little surprised at how interested the students seemed to be. 

Next on the schedule was dinner with David Blair (author of a first book of poems titled Ascension Days), and Paul Rivenberg, who was putting me up that night.  After a good Venezuelan meal, it was time to go to the room at the NIE where I was to read.  Many students from the afternoon class showed up, and one or two faculty members, and Kevin Cutrer, whom I know from Facebook but had never met face to face. After the reading and a few books signed, I spoke to Tom Yuill, author of a first book titled Medicine Show. He studied with Robert Pinsky and Rosanna Warren and now teaches creative writing himself.

Next morning Paul and I had breakfast, and we talked until it was time for him to go off to work. Not long after, Jason arrived to spend the first part of the day together.  We walked to the Museum of Fine Arts, which I’ve visited many times of course, but I wanted to see the new wing, recently built to house the MFA's “Art of the Americas.”  A soberly handsome addition, faced with white marble interrupted by glazing in a faintly greenish tint.  Jason and I hit the high spots of the collection, familiar works like Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, which seems to encapsulate the subject matter and tone of the Brown Decades, as recorded by Henry James, not to mention Howells, Wharton, and, elsewhere, Sargent himself.  I’ll also mention Copley’s iconic portrait of Paul Revere, a patriot suddenly in the news again because of Sarah Palin’s mixup about which side his lantern was giving a warning to during the famous midnight ride.  (One if by land and ignorant, two if by sea and scatterbrained.) Judging from Revere’s shrewd and steady gaze, I could well imagine what he might have felt before “refudicating” Palin’s various bloopers over the past few years. Still, as portrayed by Copley, the craftsman’s hands clasped the silver teapot he had made, his strong fingers (with the sort of attention to detail we associate with Vermeer) perfectly reflected in its polished surface.   
Paul Revere, by John Singleton Copley

Monday, 21 March 2011

A Season Summarized

Once again I’ve neglected for a long time to post anything here, part of the explanation being that I was caught up in so many activities I didn’t stop to think about writing about them.  Highlights would have included attending, with Marina Warner, a play titled Tiger Country, by the new playwright Nina Raine, whose father Craig Raine, the poet and critic, also a professor at Oxford, I met many years ago at Amy Clampitt's apartment in New York.  The play is set in a large London hospital and presents some of the difficulties of any such institution working under current rules established by the National Health Service. 

Other plays seen: a revival of Noël Coward’s playlet Red Peppers, followed by his short play Still Life, at Pentameters Theatre, which will produce my play Lowell’s Bedlam this April. Also, Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, at the Comedy Theatre, whose cast included stars Ellen Burstyn ad Keira Knightley. 

Sean O'Brien
As for seeing poet friends, I attended a Poetry Review launch at the Free Word Centre, which featured Sean O’Brien, reading, along with a young poet named Karen McCarthy Woolf.   I hadn’t seen Sean since last summer in Newcastle, and, regrettably, Gerry Wardle didn’t come down this time. Many poets were in the audience, including Poetry Review editor Fiona Sampson, of course, Elaine Feinstein, and Ruth Fainlight. After his extraordinary reading, Sean and I went out to dinner at an Italian place in Exmouth Market, joined by poets Alan Brownjohn, Leah Fritz,  Tamar Yoseloff, and her husband Andrew Lindesey.  I hadn’t met Brownjohn before, but we got onto the topic of Robert Lowell, whom he met during the years Lowell was married to Caroline Blackwood and indeed visited them at Maidstone, Kent.  Sean was in a convivial mood during dinner, leaving us all in compulsive laughter with his ironic asides.  The publication of his next book November (paradoxically published in April) should be one of the main literary events of the coming months.

Adam Mars-Jones
Adam Mars-Jones and I saw the Thomas Lawrence exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, an occasion to speculate again why portraiture is the special excellence of British painting.  Maybe something to do with theatre, which has a preëminent place in British literature: the study of character, also carried out in fiction using techniques borrowed from drama. Consider, too, the dramatic monologue, brought to perfection in Browning's poetry.  After having tea, Adam and I walked to Foyle’s and there was a copy of his new novel, titled Cedilla, a sequel to the first volume Pilcrow, published a couple of years ago.  It continues the narrative of a disabled gay man, the story based on the life of a friend of Adam’s.  An original subject, told, surprisingly, with a lot of wit, verbal acuteness, and mischief.    

Invited by Kathryn Maris, I attended the award ceremony for the T.S. Eliot Prize, held this year at the Wallace Collection (not in the galleries themselves, but in the covered courtyard).  You can never say much at these gatherings, but at least it was a chance to greet poet friends like Don Paterson, Elaine Feinstein, Colette Bryce, and Ruth Fainlight, and to meet for the first time Robin Robertson and Lavinia Greenlaw.  Anne Stevenson, the head of the prize committee, announced that the winner was Derek Walcott (not present), and discussed the virtues of his magisterial collection White Egrets.  I spoke to Anne afterwards, and we calculated that we hadn’t seen each other since 1986, at a time when she was still living in here London, in Belsize Park.  That’s how, insensibly, a quarter century can pass. 

The Queens College, Oxford
I made a day trip to Oxford, planning to see David Constantine and Craig Raine. A telephone mixup meant that I missed Carig, but David and I had a pleasant hour around teatime, and the trip was also a chance to revisit what is no doubt the most beautiful assemblage of academic buildings in the world.  That would include David’s Queens College, one of Hawksmoor’s most resplendent designs.  

Don Paterson
A week or so later, I attended a reading at the London Review Bookshop, featuring Don Paterson, Jo Shapcott, and David Harsent.  By chance I ended up sitting with Fiona Sampson, with whom it’s always a pleasure to discuss things. Don gave a topnotch reading, and next day he and I had lunch at a Spanish place near King’s Cross and had a chance to catch up.  These days he is writing critical prose as well as poems, in fact, a couple of months back I reviewed his recent commentary on the Shakespeare sonnets (see the online journal Thethe):


Marilyn Hacker
Mimi Khalvati has come to dinner a couple of times, and I had Marilyn Hacker here to lunch when she came here from Paris, where she now lives. Marilyn was one of the readers for  the spring Poetry London launch, on her way the following morning to the Stanza Festival up at St. Andrews, Scotland. Marilyn has the distinction of being one of the very few American poets published abroad in France as well as the U.K.

I mentioned the upcoming production of my play Lowell’s Bedlam and am happy to announce that rehearsals for it have now begun.  The cast is as follows:

                                                    Theresa Brockway              Celeste Haydon
Lowri Lewis                     Elizabeth Hardwick
David Manson                    Robert Lowell               
Hannah Mercer             Elizabeth Bishop               
Roger Sansom                    Dick Jaffee                    

The director is Daniel Ricken, and the producer is Leonie Scott- Matthews.

Bookings can be made at http://www.pentameters.co.uk/index.html