Category: Poetry

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A stylized depiction of four Soviet and Russian bards: Vladimir Vysotsky - Владимир Высоцкий - Oleg Gazmanov - Олег Газманов - Ada Yukasheva - Ада Якушева - Yuri Vizbor - Юрий Визбор.

Russian Bard, Soviet Poet: Inverting A Century Of Tradition

Of all the art-objects I had consumed as a child, only a few made it with me into adulthood. At 4, I was given a tape-player, a pair of headphones, and several cassettes of Soviet music—luxury items, by any metric, in the Belarusian summer of 1991, just as they would be for the kids I’d soon meet in New York. The tapes were of varying quality, often veering into bad pop and propaganda, though even these had a level of craftiness and fun missing from most pop. Sometimes, however, I’d come across an artist or a song I’d (much later) recognize as great. This would usually happen as I sat on a park bench alone with my music and a loaf of keks. Because I was rarely at school or had my time accounted for by anyone, there were opportunities to wander, all on my own schedule. My life of absenteeism—that is, my wish to be in my own little corner, of my own construct—probably arose in this period. In retrospect, it helped that the music I was unwittingly feeding my tape-player so often celebrated a rich inner life. This might surprise Western readers, but the advent of Russian bard music brought forth a level of creative disobedience not seen in decades. The effect of musical agitprop—most obvious via Alexander Alexandrov’s “The Sacred War”—was, on the one hand, something for the state to tap, but on the other, would inevitably find its way into the grip of ordinary people. That guitars and voice lessons were hard to come by proved not only irrelevant, but downright supportive of the new art. If this sounds counterintuitive, a deeper understanding of the Soviet bard tradition can help explain some broader principles of art, so that today’s bards (almost always a posthumous honorific) can be better recognized. […]

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A stylized black and white portrait of Mina Loy, author of "Ephemerid". It was taken by Stephen Haweis around 1905.

CITY WONDERING: On Mina Loy’s “Ephemerid”

If you live in a city and are, at all times, subjected to its latticework of avenues, alleyways, sidewalks and streets, it becomes easy to take for granted moments which offer insight. These can be rare, and are rarely gained through conscious search. Perhaps you find something meaningful in the face of the old woman sitting across from you. Or perhaps, sitting with friends, an errant breeze distracts from your conversation, and you detect some esoteric code in the swirl of leaf and trash. Here the city is attempting to communicate. Though the words are not sought, they are taken in. This is before the dire front page news, puddle-soiled, slams itself on the glass, its messaging now perfectly explicit.

Such occurrences are the vagaries of life, and the uncertain particles of art. Living in a big city is no requirement, of course, but having spent a few days wandering through one (Chicago, specifically) quite recently, the experience of having your senses press-ganged into engagement by any number of clonking mechanisms or jammed junctures seems to be one unique to the modern metropolis. […]

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A stylized side-by-side portrait of Ted Hughes and Robinson Jeffers.

‘But They Both Wrote About Hawks!’: Robinson Jeffers’s “Hurt Hawks” vs. Ted Hughes’s “The Hawk In The Rain”

When contemplating writers, it is not uncommon for many to lump them together on account of subject matter. Sure, it is shallow, but it is easy marketing. Imagine it—any nature writer is ‘just like Loren Eiseley’ and any gay, black political essayist who writes on race is ‘just like James Baldwin.’ Anyone who writes of death is ‘just like Sylvia Plath,’ or anyone spiritual is ‘just like Rilke.’ (How convenient a comparison, albeit even if the writing itself is lacking in skill or depth.) Years ago, I got into an argument with a professor who claimed that some random ‘nature’ writer was ‘just like Loren Eiseley.’ She argued this after having complained about the lack of intellectual writing presented within university courses. And while I did agree with her initial statement regarding the dearth of quality writing as presented in universities, when she got to examples, she was running on full emotion. (Where goes the intellectualism?) In short, she merely ‘liked’ certain banal nature writers and lumped them beside Eiseley ‘just because.’ Why? Well, it is easy. They both write about nature! […]

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A picture of the poet Bruce Ario in his church.

From There to There: The Life and Vision of Bruce Ario

There are many writers that impress vision upon a reader. But rare is it that you can meet one. Bruce D. Ario (April 29, 1955 – August 6, 2022) was one of those writers. I first met him in autumn of 1999 and I continued to know him online until his death in 2022. That I am even typing this is still a shock, as his death came suddenly. He wasn’t ill, but rather he fell and hit his head, according to his obituary. It is difficult to imagine a future without Bruce, as he was always eager to read my and Dan’s work, and his essays and comments were always unique. In fact, I can’t imagine a Minneapolis without him—the buildings, the streets, and the church—all had become part of him. Just how does a city go on without its Cityboy?

Bruce was a regular at the Uptown Poetry Group, where I would see him twice a month from 2000-2003. We’d all take our turns sharing our poems and it was normal for him to go last, after everyone else. This is perhaps indicative of his personality—others first, himself second. His ‘signature’ poem was something that earned its own name—called the ario, which consisted of ten lines written in 3/3/3/1 format. The last line would often serve as a baseball bat knocking the point home. His language was simple but not simplistic, as he excavated his ideas from feeling. His worldview was matter of fact with an underhanded insight. And one would need to listen, as his craft could easily go overlooked if not paying attention. […]

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A stylized shot of Hart Crane, author of "At Melville's Tomb".

The World and Its Overwhelm: Hart Crane’s “At Melville’s Tomb”

The world is not a painless place, especially if one is an artist. On one hand, artists are often inundated with rejection, and so they regularly feel misunderstood. Of course, this difficulty is in no way limited to artists, but for the sake of brevity, I will be focusing solely on the artistic mind. My initial intention was to write a distillation on Hart Crane, but I found myself distracted. Such vision requires a sharp set of eyes. And so, as result, I diverted my focus to where it wished to go. Hart Crane is good for discussion, since he is not only known for his so-called ‘difficult’ verse, but for his suicide, wherein he jumped off the side of a ship and plummeted into the Gulf of Mexico at age 32.

In many respects, this is a cliché—the tortured artist who dies young, but in the case of Hart Crane, it goes further. After all, 1932 was well in midst of the Great Depression, and many were struggling to find work. Bread lines, soup lines, foods were scarce. In addition, Crane was an alcoholic, his father’s business was failing, he was continually overwhelmed by his mother’s emotional needs, his homosexuality was a battle in a time more discriminatory, and would he have a job upon his return to the States? Amid such uncertainty, one can ascertain that all this grew into too much, and so Crane ended his life just before noon on April 26, 1932. He was tumultuous, troubled. Yet most accounts from those who knew him portray a gentle, albeit struggling soul who took on the burdens of others. Yet, despite his enormous talent, still this was not enough, as talent doesn’t guarantee love. People will still come and go, and for someone like Crane, the feeling of abandonment proved more than he could take. […]

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A painting of Hiawatha in silhouette by Thomas Eakins. The native chieftain was made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in "The Song of Hiawatha".

“The Song of Hiawatha”: Simplistic Folklore?

he peace-loving side of me greatly appreciates The Song of Hiawatha, written in 1855 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for the beautiful language and its conciliatory message by Hiawatha to his Native American brethren to accept the white man and his religion. My truthful side tells me that this poem has little to do with truth. Folklorist, Stith Thompson, said, “it is non-Indian in its totality,” and “the episodes (of Hiawatha) are but superficial.” So, I think what we have here is simplistic folklore for whatever it’s worth.

The poem was immediately a success for Longfellow when he published it. He sold 50,000 copies right off. The popularity of the piece with the public was there. Scholars had questions and doubts. Although Longfellow did have connections and input from Natives, it is important to note that even Longfellow admitted that Hiawatha was a fictional character. One of Longfellow’s main sources, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, has been criticized for mismanaging Native legend to suit his own tastes.

Do we have a white-acting Native in the person of Hiawatha? If we do, does that ruin any chance for redemption of The Song of Hiawatha? That depends on what you’re trying to get out of it. To take it as historical, is probably not a good bet. However, to take it as a beautiful and skillfully written piece of fiction, you might be able to pass muster. […]

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A winter castle, ostensibly where Rainer Maria Rilke wrote some of his best poems.

Rilke’s Late Winter

Earlier this year, exactly one century ago, holed up in his tower at Muzot, Rainer Maria Rilke was besieged by an onrush of creativity that resulted in all fifty-five Sonnets to Orpheus as well as the long-sought-after completion of the Duino Elegies. An auspicious season for the poet, certainly, and one immortalized in poetic legendry – and I use that word on purpose, for while its historical occurrence is undeniable, Rilke’s constant invocation of the seemingly divine presence that inspired him (who first arrived to him in Duino Castle twelve years before, whispering that unforgettable opening line) wreaths this vital period in semi-mythic air.

Of the 20th century Great Poets, surely Rilke is one of, if not the most, beloved. His poetry is an outpouring of spiritual open-ness, rendering it generously receptive to believers of all creeds, although Rilke had rejected the religiosity of his childhood in favor of a mystical awareness or sensitivity to all things. […]

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A stylized photo of Chicago, as immortalized by Carl Sandburg.

Carl Sandburg: The Love of Chicago

When Carl Sandburg’s Chicago was written in 1914, labor unions were growing at a fast pace, and it’s not too surprising to find a poem with such a labor feel. We can safely say the poem would not have been written today. It is a trip back to WWI days when things were, well, different. Chicago was always the biggest city in the Midwest, but the economics were industry and not finance as today.

The images in the poem speak to this somewhat slowed down state of hard-working men. The poem introduces Chicago as the “Hog Butcher of the World” which at once captures a rough and almost severe city. We get to know Chicago as a “Stormy, husky, brawling,/ City of Big Shoulders”. Clearly the writer characterizes Chicago as masculine. This is probably indicative of the times. The 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920 was yet to pass when Carl Sandburg was writing. The city was run, at least in business, by the men giving Chicago a very macho kind of feel. The women who are mentioned are painted and standing on corners to lure men. Testosterone oozes.

The element of crime is also prevalent. “And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.” There is a sense of lawlessness and lack of order or justice. That is what Sandburg focuses on. The poem precedes Al Capone but we can see him coming. […]