Monthly Archives: January 2010

Monday’s Verse, Jan. 25, 2010

Readers,

We present the last of our winter elegies today, celebrating the cracked genius of Vic Chesnutt. Vic Chesnutt was born on November 12, 1964, and learned how to play guitar from his grandfather. After a single-car drunk-driving accident when he was 18, Vic re-learned how to play guitar since he was nearly a quadriplegic. Like a lot of paralysis victims he had diaphragm weakness, and who knows how much this contributed to his froggy, vulnerable singing voice–it is definitely an acquired taste, but seems to suit a lot of his lyrics. Chesnutt was one of those song-writing heroes who had a rock-solid, cultish fan base that included a lot of other musicians, but never really gained popular renown. Michael Stipe, who produced his first record, said that Vic loved words, and that if you listen carefully you can find the one word in every song that surprises you–Chesnutt liked to mix high and low verbal arcana, from “rascally” to “paragon,” and his choices lent a sense of fun and wonder to songs that tend toward a more meditative register.

Vic Chesnutt died on Christmas after taking an overdose of his prescription painkillers. His last album, 2009’s At the Cut, was one of his most critically acclaimed, and contains the beautiful song “Flirted with You All My Life,” which appears like a regular old romance song until you realize he’s talking about his previous attempts at suicide. But for our reading (and listening, if you are able to play the attached file, below) pleasure, I’ve chosen a lighter piece, one which shows off Mr. Chesnutt’s sense of humor and wordplay, and probably the first song I heard by him, a long time ago. Those of my generation will enjoy the pitch-perfect early-90’s references. Those who appreciate poetic technique will note his use of anaphora. And those who are sympathetic to his worldview might like his resigned irony. Which reminds me of something else I wanted to tackle: What is irony? I’m serious, I love it but I struggle with understanding it, so I’m opening the line up to readers. What is irony? Is there an appropriate poem that illustrates your understanding of it? Send ’em our way. And have a good week. -ed.

STEVE WILLOUGHBY

someday I’m gonna be rich
someday I’m gonna be bona fide
someday I’m gonna be
just like Steve Willoughby
but today I’m simply I’m simply terrified
I’m terrified

someday I’m gonna be bright
someday I’m gonna be smarter smarter than smart
someday I’ll know something
just like Larry King
but today I simply I don’t know where to start
I don’t know where to start

someday I’m gonna be hot
someday I’m gonna be bigger bigger than big
someday I’ll be adored
just like Wally George
but today I simply I ain’t worth a fig
I ain’t worth a fig

someday I’m gonna be good
someday I’m gonna be virtuous
someday I’ll be a paragon
like Louis Farrakahan
but today I simply I’m a mess
I’m in a mess

someday I’m gonna be cool
someday I’m gonna kick major major butt
someday I will transcend
just like Jane’s Addiction
but today I simply I am in a rut
I’m in a rut

someday I’ll get a career
someday I’m gonna stop wasting all my time
some day I’ll gain a skill
just like Deborah Norville
but today I simply I ain’t worth a dime I ain’t worth a dime

-1992

Monday’s Verse, Jan. 18, 2010

Recognizing that today is the MLK, Jr., holiday, I deviate briefly from my course of remembrance for the recently deceased… but not from my overall theme of memory for the deceased.

Born in Lousiana in 1970, poet Kevin Young has been winning awards for a while now. He has, according to Lucille Clifton, the “gift of storytelling and understanding of the music inherent in the oral tradition of language” that “re-creates for us an inner history which is compelling and authentic and American.” Likely you will sense that as you connect his words here–written generally, and from the point of view of the eulogized–with the holiday’s namesake. Young updates his title by going with the general and modern “eulogy,” rather than the poetic, and somewhat archaic, “elegy”; believe it or not the two words come from two different Greek words, thought their meanings have sort of asymptotically approached each other over the centuries. Anyway. Kevin Young. MLK Day. Eulogy. -ed.

EULOGY

To allow silence
To admit it in us

always moving
Just past

senses, the darkness
What swallows us

and we live amongst
What lives amongst us

*

These grim anchors
That brief sanctity

the sea
Cast quite far

when you seek
—in your hats black

and kerchiefs—
to bury me

*

Do not weep
but once, and a long

time then
Thereafter eat till

your stomach spills over
No more! you’ll cry

too full for your eyes
to leak

*

The words will wait

*

Place me in a plain
pine box I have been

for years building
It is splinters

not silver
It is filled of hair

*

Even the tongues
of bells shall still

*

You who will bear
my body along

Spirit me into the six
Do not startle

at its lack of weight
How light

-2008

Monday’s Verse, Jan. 11, 2010

Dear readers,

mordant wit, formal elegance and cleareyed examination–these are the descriptors in the first line of an obituary for the Manhattan-based poet Rachel Wetzsteon, who died over Chirstmas eve. She was 42; the cause, suicide. You might say she was well-educated: Yale, Johns Hopkins, Columbia. You might say she was successful: prize-winner, teacher, poetry editor at The New Republic. She had lived in Morningside Heights for a long time, and some of her best-loved poems center on the neighborhood itself. Her most recent collection, Sakura Park, took its title from her favorite spot.

She was also one of those poets tagged with the “new formalist” label. She proudly wrote formal verse and wrote about the importance of form, yet, like most, did not sit comfortably with the label itself. Aren’t all poets concerned with form?, she argued.

Every artist who commits suicide runs the risk of having everything s/he has ever produced interpreted only, or chiefly, via that fatal closing act. But these poems stood, for a while, side by side with their living author. I suppose what they gain or lose by her death has as much to do with us as with them, or her. Here’s one that speaks with brief eloquence, quiet joy, about the transformative power of words. ~mjl

Gold Leaves

Someone ought to write about (I thought
and therefore do) stage three of alchemy:
not inauspicious metal turned into
a gilded page, but that same page turned back
to basics when you step outside for air
and feel a radiance that was not there
the day before, your sidewalks lined with gold.

-2006

Monday’s Verse, Jan. 4, 2010

Dear friends,

welcome to the first edition of what promises to be, well, a year. Forgive me if I’m in a saturnine mood; the last 10 days were HORRIBLE for American poetry! So we’ll spend the next couple weeks in mourning. First off, Lilly heiress and poetry benefactor Ruth Lilly died on December 30th, at the age of 94. You may recall the hubbub a few years ago when she donated $100 million to the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, most famous for its world-class magazine, Poetry. I won’t go into the details, but good background is provided in her NYTimes obituary, available here:
One of the most interesting tidbits is that Ms. Lilly suffered from depression and was in institutions or her home for a good portion of her life. Poetry was her only source of succor until about 1998, when the anti-depressant Prozac hit the market. Prozac was developed and marketed by the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co., founded in 1876 right there in Indianapolis by her grandafther, Eli. Apparently the drug had a salutary effect on her ability to live in the world, which is about the only thing poetic I’ve ever heard about a large drug manufacturer.
I’d hoped to print some of Ms. Lilly’s own rejected poems (it was the encouraging notes she received from Poetry‘s editor that prompted her to support the magazine), but could not find any. Instead, a poem by the very first winner of the Ruth Lilly poetry prize, established in 1986. We already know all about Adrienne Rich, born in 1929, whose name is an anagram for this forum’s motto (“Read in, enrich”), and the title of whose poem is as apt in this new year as it was when it was published. Thanks to Ruth Lilly, a few more Americans have time to talk about trees. -ed.

What Kind of Times Are These

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.
-1995