May 19

The Ten Poets on U.S. Postage Stamps

Delighted to see at tpoetsstampshe post office -- and purchase -- a set of first-class postage stamps featuring first-class 20th-century American poets: Brodsky, Brooks, Williams, Hayden, Plath, Bishop, Stevens, Levertov, Cummings and Roethke. Seems like some of them were here just yesterday -- like Denise Levertov -- and I'd rather give that space to Howard Nemerov, whose poetry I like better -- but it's a fine gallery to start with. It's a sheet of 20 but features only 10 poets. Here's the Sylvia Plath stamp we have all been waiting for. Read or re-read the early works of Gwendolyn Brooks: wonderfully gymnastic, mind-bendingly original formal poetry. Of this entire group Brooks is the most underrated.
Aug 05

The Sensitive Artist, Part 2

The first thing I believed about artists, and I don't know how I got this idea, is that artists are sensitive, especially poets, and if that was so I had to be sensitive, which I'm not good at except in relation to myself. But I didn't know that, so I dabbed on some Sensitive and wore black. At 24 and pale from hanging out in basements and libraries, I went to listen to poet Denise Levertov, who seemed an impatient and not-so-pleasant woman, and she declared to her audience, as if it were a retort, "Poets are not more sensitive than other people; just more articulate." And I thought, Denise is sooo wrong.

About five years later I meet and talk with famous poets and see them just about every day. They were the most insensitive, self-absorbed, preening, neurotic, swaggering, and  jealousy-ridden candyasses I had ever seen outside of high school. (Think not that I was unaware that it takes one to know one.) I met some other famous poets: brilliant, hard-as-bunions cynics, spouters of poisonous jokes and legendary put-downs, authors of some of the most gorgeous and sensitive poetry of their time. And I thought, Denise was right.

So there's the quotation (two entries down) by Pearl Buck, Nobel-winning novelist now dismissed as a pulp-fiction writer, and it seems to me that hers is a quite 19th-century view of creativity as a sort of rare, terrible and wonderful spiritual commodity, like being born with a caul, permitting the owners to exist in perpetual spiritual infancy. I still buy what she says, believing it's true of everyone, particularly in this highly self-aware day and age. Name somebody you know who sees everything from a balanced, reasonable point of view, whose injuries and transports are merely physical. Those are the rare ones now.
May 05

Anne Sexton Told Erica Jong

In the '70s Erica Jong, about to publish her second book of poetry, told Anne Sexton she feared that the critics would hammer it. Sexton wrote back:

Don't dwell on the book's reception. The point is to get on with it--you have a life's work ahead of you--no point in dallying around waiting for approval. We all want it, I know, but the point is to reach out honestly--that's the whole point. I keep feeling that there isn't one poem being written by any of us--or a book or anything like that. The whole life of us writers, the whole product I guess I mean, is the one long poem--a community effort if you will. It's all the same poem. It doesn't belong to any one writer--it's God's poem perhaps. Or God's people's poem. You have the gift--and with it comes responsibility--you mustn't neglect or be mean to that gift--you must let it do its work. It has more rights than the ego wants approval.

I'm wondering whether Sexton was right, or if it's "Writer, Keep the Faith While Society Flays You" feel-good wishful thinking that Sexton herself did not believe -- which would explain why she wrote this using so many qualifiers -- and that she herself could not use.

Quoted from: Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life, by Erica Jong. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2006.