books, art, culture, and other things I love

Category: Poetry

Culture Watch: The Intersection of Two Modern Masters.

“We would rather be ruined than changed/We would rather die in our dread/Than climb the cross of the moment/And let our illusions die.”

W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety is not an easy read. As a cultural artifact (published in 1947, as the modernist moment is fading), it is fascinating as it exhibits the underpinnings of all modern literature: the competing sensibilities of loss and liberation. The very form of the poem, an eclogue, gestures toward this sense of loss as it holds on to this classical convention as if to center its subject–how to find meaning in a changing and increasingly industrialized world. That said, the choice of the eclogue, the domain of Virgil and all that is pastoral, is deliberate and disrupts and dislocates the images of metropolitan life we see in the text.  Set in a NYC bar and told through the conversations between four characters, Auden’s poem considers man’s quest for understanding at the dawn of a new era. The poem won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 and inspired a musical composition by Leonard Bernstein, The Age of Anxiety, Symphony No. 2.

Last weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a concert performance of Bernstein’s piece by Boston’s New Philharmonia Orchestra. In the first moments of the score, I was so moved by the plaintive sounds of the woodwind instruments, I felt my eyes well up. And that emotional connection continued throughout the whole piece. Just lovely. And the performance inspired me to reread the poem this week, which is a good thing. 

Here is the gorgeous concert stage in Newton’s First Baptist Church…as you might imagine, the acoustics are fantastic.

And here is my seven-year-old concert date, who gave the music two thumbs up!



Here in Boston, we are in a Snowy Vortex–think 2014’s Polar Vortex–only less convenient. In the last two weeks, we’ve had so much snow here that I’ve lost track of the totals. Suffice it to say, it is A LOT. Service from the MBTA (our local public transit system) has been spotty or completely shut down, businesses have been closed, roads have been clogged with traffic and basically everyone you talk to has had enough.

Unless you happen to talk to a school-age child, that is! They love the snow.
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I think my dog does too.

After reading this Cognoscenti piece by Barbara Howard last Friday, I regained my own composure and perspective. It offered a good reminder that while for some, extreme weather is a matter of inconvenience, for others it can mean the difference between making it to work in order to make ends meet or not. So now, I am all about finding my zen–even in the midst of this snowy disruption.

Taking a walk helps–the fresh air and exercise truly does help to stave off cabin fever! And even this reader needs to get her nose out from behind her books.

While I was out for a walk this afternoon with my pup, I thought of this 1921 poem from Wallace Stevens.

The Snowman

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens, 1921.

Maybe thinking of the harsh weather as a catalyst to artistic expression is a good mindset to adopt.

And the snow does look pretty in the moonlight.

Merry Christmas and a poem.

This poem, composed in 1629, by John Milton is one I think of every year. In fact, on a cold December morning in 2008 (Milton’s 400th birthday) I attended a sunrise reading of this poems and this was the first one read. In it, Milton reimagines the New Testament birth of Christ from a first person account. It is so lovely–read it through.

Merry, Merry Christmas!






Memoir Monday: Anne Sexton’s Confessional Poetry.

Though Anne Sexton (1928-1974) never wrote a memoir in its conventional sense, the confessional nature of her collected works constructs a sharply drawn portrait of a multifaceted woman who experienced a range of emotions that hit each end of the spectrum. Sexton, who studied with Robert Lowell at Boston University, had the gift of lyric expression. But her battles with depression and lingering sadness (not unlike her contemporary Sylvia Plath) imbued her work.

This weekend, I reread some of her poems from The Complete Poems. In particular, one—“The Double Image”—stayed with me. Written for her daughter Joyce after their separation following Sexton’s suicide attempt, the lines are heavy and redolent of regret. The poem, in seven movements, begins with clear contextualization:

I am thirty this November.
You are still small, in your fourth year.
We stand watching the yellow leaves go queer,
flapping in the winter rain,
falling flat and washed. And I remember
mostly the three autumns you did not live here.

And after taking the subject through a catalogue of explanations of her absence, her final movement opens this way:

I could not get you back
except for weekends. You came
each time, clutching the picture of a rabbit
that I had sent you. For the last time I unpack
your things. We touch from habit.
The first visit you asked my name.
Now you stay for good…

Another poem, “Young,” captures girlhood (on the precipice of adolescence) perfectly, I think:

A thousand doors ago
when I was a lonely kid
in a big house with four
garages and it was summer
as long as I could remember,
I lay on the lawn at night,
clover wrinkling under me,
the wise stars bedding over me,
my mother’s window a funnel
of yellow heat running out,
my father’s window, half shut,
an eye where sleepers pass,
and the boards of the house
were smooth and white as wax
and probably a million leaves
sailed on their strange stalks
as the crickets ticked together
and I, in my brand new body,
which was not a woman’s yet,
told the stars my questions
and thought God could really see
the heat and the painted light,
elbows, knees, dreams, goodnight.


Pablo Neruda and the politics of translation

For a time, I was studying Spanish pretty seriously. One of the biggest motivators for me was that I wanted to read Pablo Neruda’s poetry in the language of its composition, rather than through a translator’s lens. This week, The Guardian reported that more than 20 previously unseen poems of “extraordinary quality” were discovered in Neruda’s archives in his native Chile. This is exciting news, and I look forward to their public unveiling!


As an aside, translations are tricky business–some are good, others not so. There are some translators I admire, for different reasons (David Ferry’s translations of Horace, for example, are sophisticated yet accessible. Stephen Mitchell’s versions of Gilgamesh and The Iliad are beautiful from a narrative standpoint, but do not privilege linguistic and syntactical translation accuracy).

Translation, too, can be a political act–with a translator’s choices privileging or subverting an author’s message. Without translations, our access to important texts would be extremely limited, so it is essential. But the best translations truly capture the semantic spirit of the original text.

One of my favorite Neruda editions of Los Versos del Capitan (The Captain’s Verses), is the bilingual edition translated by Donald D. Walsh. My favorite poem in the collection is La Reina.

Yo te he nombrado reina.
Hay más altas que tú, más altas.
Hay más puras que tú, más puras.
Hay más bellas que tú, hay más bellas.

Pero tú eres la reina.

Cuando vas por las calles
nadie te reconoce.
Nadie ve tu corona de cristal, nadie mira
la alfombra de oro rojo
que pisas donde pasas,
la alfombra que no existe.

Y cuando asomas
suenan todos los ríos
en mi cuerpo, sacuden
el cielo las campanas,y un himno llena el mundo.

Sólo tú y Yo,
sólo tú y yo, amor mío,
lo escuchamos.

THE QUEEN (English translation)
I have named you queen.
There are taller than you, taller.
There are purer than you, purer.
There are lovelier than you, lovelier.

But you are the queen.

When you go through the streets
No one recognizes you.
No one sees your crystal crown, no one looks
At the carpet of red gold
That you tread as you pass,
The nonexistent carpet.

And when you appear
All the rivers sound
In my body, bells
Shake the sky,
And a hymn fills the world.

Only you and I,
Only you and I, my love,
Listen to it.