Music : Literature :: Speech : Email

Has literature been redefined?

Maybe. Or perhaps it would be better to say the Swedish Academy has attempted to refine or realign it.

Remember those standardized tests with the funny looking analogy questions?

All those colons lined up and just reveling in the mystery they provided? With four choices, at least two of which sounded plausible? There’s plenty of people younger than me who don’t remember those questions because they have been removed from most standardized tests, even from college entrance exams such as the SAT exam.

Analogy questions were formed like this:

Birds : crow ::

A) Dogs : cat

B) Reptile : fish

C) Fruit : banana

D) House : Garage

The answer is C.  The colons are shorthand for is/are to and as.  So birds are to crows as fruit is to banana.

(That’s the serious part of this post — the rest is just for fun.)

Music: literature :: speech : email

What does this analogy have to do with anything?

Well, let’s ask the Nobel Committee for Literature.  In case you haven’t heard, they’ve awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan for his body of musical achievement.  But don’t hold your breath waiting for an explanation from the committee on how music fits into the literature category, because the Nobel Foundation restricts information about the nominations for 50 years.  In 2066, check back with the Swedish Academy.

Meantime, we get to speculate, and we have only the committee’s official statements to go by. Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature

for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition

The Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, also said:

He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the English tradition

she references his “brilliant way of rhyming and pictorial thinking” as support for his selection.

You can see the interview with Danius on youtube here, in which the answer to the question Has the Swedish Academy widened the horizon of the Nobel Prize in Literature is  “it may look that way but really we haven’t” — basis Homer and Sappho having written texts meant to be sung which we still read today.

Well, ok then, that’s one point of view. Rather, it is at least 10 points of view, because the committee of 18 members must agree on the selection by at least a simple majority.

Boys using phones -- to talk to each other? Or not?
Boys using phones — to talk to each other? Or not?

So back to that analogy thing

The Swedish Academy appears to have fallen into the trap we see in other areas: convergence.

We’ve seen our phones, pagers, emails, cameras, calendars, address books, and more being built into one device–the smartphone–which is an example of technological convergence.

I often hear  someone say  “I talked” to someone, but when asked about the topic, the next statement is “I haven’t got a response back yet”–which is an example of conceptual convergence.  That is, communication can be in person, by phone, via speech, text, email, instant message, skype, or other app–and we refer to it all collectively as if it were one.  I talked to them. If someone at work says “I talked to so-and-so today” there’s a pretty good chance they can forward me an email of the conversation.

The Swedish Academy is apparently having a moment of artistic convergence, in which musical accomplishment has been equated to literary accomplishment.

In fact, music — presumably still limited to the kind that comes with lyrics — has enough overlap with other verbal utterances (written or otherwise) that this part of the musical spectrum has overlapped with literature.

This leaves the instrumentalist musicians out in the cold, as that is probably a stretch too far to be called literature — though given the mathematical nature of music, perhaps the economics committee ought to take note of the workings of instrumental music.

Purists take heart

In the grand scheme of things, speech and email and text messages are not interchangeable nor are they one in effectiveness or efficiency. Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature is unlikely to change the amount of traditional poetry books sold in the world. It’s not likely to cause rock groups and rappers to suddenly sell thousands of bound versions of their lyrics.

The Swedish Academy will briefly be in the news for this decision. This may last longer than typical for Nobel Awards if Dylan (who hasn’t acknowledged the award) doesn’t show up to the ceremony on December 10. If he doesn’t give the required lecture within six months of the award, thereby forfeiting the prize money of approximately $900,000, the award will be back in the news again. Of course, since the Academy has said that Dylan can give a concert instead of a lecture, and he’s still performing often, it should be easy for him to give a concert if he wants. Either way, the news cycle will sweep the Nobel Prize news away until next year’s awards.

Experimentalists take heart

And those of you that like to bend the definitions of genres, within literature or without?  You’re winners too.

Text messages and voice mail are both communication. Sappho and Bob Dylan are both singer-songwriter-poets. Concerts can substitute for lectures — a fact I wish my thermodynamics professor had realized.

Convergence has reached at least slightly beyond the mainstream. Your preferred mash-up or experimental push at the boundary of traditionally defined art may be recognized next by whatever self-appointed standard-maintaining body is applicable.

Poetry-sound installations? Performance poetry? Those practicing these and other boundary-pushing, often ephemeral forms of art, may have more chance at recognition.

Perhaps the Swedish Academy will take nominations by video in the future. Maybe I can send them a snapchat.

Disagree with me?  Agree?

Feel free to comment.  I’ve heard a lot of thoughts already.

One person said “I heard about the nomination but I didn’t know Dylan wrote anything.”

Another said “the Prize Committee is just looking for attention.”

I’ve heard positives — “something popular and poetic got recognized”. And negatives — “people think just by calling something literature they make it so”

Personally, in a world full of so many opportunities to recognize written work, I think the Prize Committee flubbed a chance to bring under-recognized treasures to light.

What do you say?







“Deciding Not To” in Sediments Literary-Arts Journal

New Publication:

My poem, “Deciding Not To,” is posted now in Sediments Literary-Arts Journal, Issue Eight.  Sediments is an online quarterly literary journal. It unfurls its focus onto its contents week by week throughout the quarter.  This week my poem will be featured on the home page. Next week something new will take its place. However, you will still be able to see my poem if you click through Issue Eight’s features. Prior issues are available in Sediments’ online archives.


“Deciding Not To” features an epigraph from one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver.  These lines are from “A Poem for the Blue Heron,” published in  American Primitive (Little, Brown, 1983):

a bird with an eye like a full moon
deciding not to die, after all–

Cover, American Primitive by Mary Oliver

Cover, American Primitive by Mary Oliver

Other than the epigraph, there isn’t a blue heron in my poem. Here’s a picture of a blue heron anyway, in case you are curious how the bird looks.

blue heron wading

blue heron wading

I hope you enjoy “Deciding Not To”!



Poem on Fickle Muses: Sisyphus Ponders Escape

My Poem on Fickle Muses “Sisyphus Ponders Escape”

My poem, “Sisyphus Ponders Escape,” went up on Fickle Muses’ site today. Fickle Muses is ending publication soon, and I am honored to have work published there before the site’s long run comes to an end. While I’m sorry to see the site coming to a close, I can appreciate the deep commitment that has sustained Fickle Muses thus far at the same time I as understand the need for one chapter to end so that another can begin.

If You Were Sisyphus

Often we think ourselves trapped — by life, other people, commitments, hopes, challenges…and by forces we can’t even conceptualize. Forces which we could never have imagined would bring themselves to act on our lives.  And we think there is little we can do about our situation.

I’m not sure that’s always true.

There’s plenty of times we can’t control anything except our own actions and reactions.

But many times, we can do more, if we only believe it is possible.

If you were Sisyphus, trapped in unending torment for something you were only a little sorry to have done, what would you think?  Would you think you had any control?  The punishment is intended to take control away, replace control with unending effort and drudgery at someone else’s whim.

Bad enough that the various problems and circumstances of life seem to go on forever.  But what if the punishment for trying to control events beyond your allowed scope doesn’t just seem but actually goes on forever?  That’s the situation Sisyphus is in.

The modern notion of punishment is that it is intended to rehabilitate the one who is punished. In the case of Sisyphus, there is no allowance for the potential of redemption.  No possibility of parole, no time served for good behavior.

Sisyphus rightly knows that, unless he acts on behalf of himself, the endless repetition of punishment will continue. No one is coming to rescue him. If he wants out, he must engineer the escape himself.

That’s what this poem is about.

Is there more?

Some of you probably know that I am working on a collection of Sisyphus-related poems.  The collection is shaping up nicely. While I’d like to say it will be ready for this winter, I’m not completely sure about that.

Thanks to Fickle Muses for the publication!  Enjoy!


Go Look at Issue 8 of Sediments Literary-Arts Journal posted 9/11

New Publication:

Issue 8 of Sediments Literary-Arts Journal went up today, 9/11 — take a look!

On this 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the first poem of the current issue, “in America we like our heroes dead” by Matthew Bendert, has particular significance.

Where were you on 9/11?

I was at work.  I walked through the basement level of the research building I worked in and saw several people huddled around a television set. Some were crying.  I couldn’t see, at first, what was happening.  I had to push myself to the front of the group.

It was an old-style television, set on a tall, narrow cart, too heavy to move easily on its own.  By today’s standards, it is now ancient.  By the standards of its time, it was a little out of date, but not ancient.

It reminded me of the first moon landings, when I was in kindergarten.  I watched film of those landings from the floor of the gymnasium, staring up at the huge, bulky television with its tiny black and white screen atop the towering audio-visual cart. My friends, silent as I was, watched with me.  We craned our necks up, as if we were looking into the night sky.

But this was no moon landing.

That day, I watched the news on that basement television set as the second of the Twin Towers fell.  I missed the fall of the first.

Whatever sound played, whatever newscaster spoke, I have no memory of.

Just that picture, over and over, being replayed: the first plane hitting the tower. The tower coming down.

Later that day, I had a call from a client in New Jersey.

They had spent most the day on their rooftop, watching what seemed like the world coming apart. They felt we should wait on the next delivery.  I agreed.  I wasn’t sure there would ever be another delivery of anything again.  I wasn’t sure what might happen tomorrow.

Tomorrow is never assured.  We get so used to the sun coming up, so used to the next day being so much like the previous, that we think is has been assured to us.  We think  we can count on the tomorrow we envision.

Of course, there is far less we can count on that we realize. Yet, there is a positive side to this uncertainty.

If we lived with the knowledge of the raw uncertainty of life foremost in our minds, we could accomplish nothing.

The illusion of permanence, the illusion of safety, lets us forge forward into the future. It lets us create, and build.  Invest, educate, sow, reap. Without the expectation of safety, we would accomplish nothing as a people.

9/11 reminded us of the fragility — and preciousness — of living in our illusions just enough to forge a society, a people, a future.

Review Links: Levis’ “The Darkening Trapeze”

What Comes After Elegy?

The appearance of The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems, by Larry Levis, Graywolf Press, 2016, surprised those who expected that Elegy, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997, also published posthumously, was probably the last collection of Larry Levis’ work. Since its publication in January this year, however, The Darkening Trapeze was has been received to high acclaim, and has been widely reviewed and contemplated in print.

Full disclosure: I studied with Levis at the Warren Wilson College MFA for Writers Program in the early ’90’s, so I am absolutely biased. I agree with most of what I see in the press about Levis in general and The Darkening Trapeze in particular.  Rather than re-state what has otherwise been very well said, I will list below various links, grouped into the three categories of reviews, remembrances, and other. Of course this cannot be completely comprehensive. Please feel free to leave any adds or misses in the comments.

Reviews of Levis’ The Darkening Trapeze:

Ploughshares Review of The Darkening Trapeze from February, 2016. A particularly perceptive comment is “If humor offers a way of coping with the self-consciousness of sentiment, one of the great tropes of Levis’ work is that jokes often spiral out of control into tragedy”.

In Tess Taylor’s NPR review of The Darkening Trapeze,. I especially like the description she gives of Larry’s poems as “mournful, quicksilver inhabitations.”

Publisher’s Weekly posted Ada Limon’s review in which she calls The Darkening Trapeze “a book in which hope is only delivered in increments, slowly and under the door”.

In David Biespiel’s review of The Darkening Trapeze for the NY Times, Biespiel says of Larry’s work: “Rarely have life’s joys and bitterness been embraced with such decency.”

Kathleen Graber reviewed The Darkening Trapeze  –and referred back to earlier collections, in her post for the LA Review of Books. She covers a lot of ground in this in-depth consideration, but I like that she’s pointed out “how hypnotic the unfurling of Levis’s sentences can be” — a characteristic which I think intensified over the span of his work.

In a review for Graywolf Press’ blog, Mark Doty describes Levis’ work as confessional and post-confessional, “bound in time” and yet leaking into timelessness. I agree with his assertion that “people will be reading Larry Levis a hundred years from now, should there be readers of poetry, or readers at all.”

Remembrances of Levis:

David St. John–first student, then long-time close friend and colleague of Larry’s–who edited Levis’ Selected Poems, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000, also compiled and edited The Darkening Trapeze. As part of Graywolf Press’ blog series, David St. John muses on an iconic Larry Levis moment.

An impressive Levis moment at a reading, is told by a then-PhD student, Pam Houston, from Graywolf Press’ series of remembrances of Larry.

Charles Baxter’s lithub post — in which he recalls Larry Levis, and calls him a “lizard poet”.

Erika L. Sanchez’ describes what Levis’ work means to her, in particular the feeling his work creates of “a sharp ache for something I can’t quite identify”, in another post for Graywolf Press.

Also available to purchase, in The American Poetry Review’s March/April 2016 issue, is the long piece The Darkening Trapeze: A Conversation which is a conversation between the poets Gregory Donovan, Linda Gergerson, Terrance Hayes, and Tony Hoagland in which they span the range of Levis’ poetry and its development over time.  Also in this issue are three poems from The Darkening Trapeze.

Other Levis Links:

Not a review about the newest book, but a good bio and bibliography of Larry Levis’ work: Bio and Bibliography

Want to hear Larry Levis discuss poetry, and, in particular, the elegy?  On the Warren Wilson College MFA site, you can buy a digital copy of Levis’ lecture from January, 1994:  On Elegy: Seamus Heaney’s “Station Island”

Joseph Fasano’s 2015 examination of the theme of banishment running through Levis’ poetics was also published at

Also not a review– a documentary film A Late Style of Fire: Larry Levis, American Poet will be released this fall.  I’m looking forward to seeing the film, though of course revisiting the past always brings up so much that is bittersweet–like much of Levis’ work.

My Own Opinion

As I said at the beginning, you have to remember that I am biased.  Hayes talks in the APR article about Larry trying to “expand the edges” of the poem.  Others have written about the long, sometimes recursive, lines that mark his later work. a sort of circling about the subject as a means of eventually containing what cannot be contained. Donovan says they “swirl” and Hoagland and Graber describe the poems as having “unfurled.”

When I think of Larry writing in his later style, all the above seem apt descriptions.  But I am left with an image of the poet as fly fisherman, casting a line out into life’s stream, tugging and reeling it back through the moving water, patiently casting again, tempting and entrancing, until the mesmerized fish strikes and is able to be brought into the light.


The Lost Neruda Poems, Trans. Forrest Gander

Then Come Back, The Lost Neruda Poems —Translation by Forrest Gander

I love reading translations into English–the imagery and metaphors of another mindset, worldview, often come across so fresh and startling when they come from another language. But translations bring challenges. First, how good is the translation of Then Come Back, The Lost Neruda Poems? Second, how good is the reader?

hardcover image, Then Come Back, The Lost Neruda
Then Come Back, The Lost Neruda

Challenge: How Good Is The Translation

Unless you are a native speaker of the original language, it is difficult to know the quality of the translation. And the original language and the language of the translation don’t always allow for the same intent, effect, meaning in roughly the same form, line, structure. The translator’s skill in general, and affinity in particular for the poem in its native language, come into play here.

Challenge: How Good Is The Reader

Some poems, in translation or not, present everything directly within the poem which the reader needs to experience the poem.  But some require the reader to know more. They rely on the reader to know the political, cultural, artistic, intellectual background out of which the poem or poet operates. Some require the cultural subtext associated with charged vocabulary to inform the reader.  The translator of such works needs to ensure denotation and connotation come across in the translation appropriately. So the reader must bring the necessary knowledge, but the translator is still critical—the translation must adequately represent the poetic and cultural background from the native poem in the second language.

It’s a three-way dance: poet, translator, reader

Then Come Back, The Lost Neruda Poems is a translation of 21 poems culled from the notebooks and other writing left by Pablo Neruda to his estate. They were published in Spanish in 2014. The English translations are by Forrest Gander, who has previously translated some of Neruda’s work. The bilingual edition was just recently available, published by Copper Canyon Press in Spring, 2016.

Reading Translations—Inhabiting Another Mindspace

When I read translations I like to start with the translator(s) note(s) or introduction.  This helps me understand what the translator believed was most important — connotation, denotation, form, music—what could be represented in English, what could only be represented in compromise, what could never be compromised without gutting the poems themselves. It often tells where the translator felt that s/he fell short, was unable to make the translation capture the original to his/her satisfaction.

So, full disclosure: I have not fully read the translator’s introduction to Then Come Back, The Lost Neruda Poems.  I’ve tried, but I’m currently limited by my inability to get past the parallels between Gander’s having to deal with his mother’s decline due to Alzheimer’s and my own mother’s recent passing. My mother’s death was due to complications of COPD, but for the last year or two her lucid moments had been growing too far apart for any kind of comfort.

Also, full disclosure: I have not finished thoroughly reading the poems of Then Come Back itself, short though the work actually is at only 21 poems. I kept getting stopped by the imagery. These poems are arresting, at least in English.  They operate mostly on images and personal impression (vs. political and cultural commentary). Also I kept getting interrupted, by the demands of family and job and eventually my mother’s passing. So I’ve read the poems but some have not had the reading they deserve, the attention from this reader which allows each poem to fully speak.

Finally, I admit to a certain trepidation when I started reading the poems. I began with solemnity and intent, then soon found myself slipping into this other head space, communing with the virtual poetry-mind of Neruda. It’s a place full of Neruda’s characteristic patterns, rhythms, sensuality. I was in the midst of the revision on a series of linked poems and felt I couldn’t risk losing myself into that other space. It would be too easy to bring some of Neruda’s vernacular and tone back with me, into poems where it didn’t belong. So this, too, delayed me. Perhaps that was an unfounded fear. Yet Gander says it better than I just did, in his introduction:

“What do I ever give up to take on a translation project? My own writing goes on hold, but when, eventually, I come back to it, I bring to it something new—a feral vocabulary I’ve adopted from the translation, a fresh set of syntactical and rhythmical strategies, the image repertoire of someone else’s imagination. I always come back changed.”

How Does Then Come Back Fare in Translation?

Simply: it fares beautifully.

One is hardly aware of the translator’s presence at all, at least in English. There is no stuttering, no awkwardness of vocabulary, no over-use of obviously literal translation which doesn’t work in English. If I were a native Spanish speaker I could tell you how is the contrast between the English and Spanish versions. I’ll speak to that more below, but my suspicion is that the bilingual versions are highly compatible with poetic intent.

As poems in English, the first thing that strikes one is the simplicity of language, combined with the strikingly original imagery. This is Neruda as seen in so many other works—able to take precise and common language and rearrange it to evoke uncommonly arresting images and emotions.

Because I have gone back so many times, starting with Poem 1 and moving each time further through the book, I have spent the most time on the first poem and I’ll use it as exemplar here. I should note that the poems are not titled but numbered, in deference to Neruda’s lack of titles for them in his papers.

Poem 1

Here is the first line of the poem: simple, precise, intense, drawing you in with sensual possibility:

I touch your feet in the shade, your hands in the light,

And then the second lines dives in out of some other world, falls from the clouds at intense speed, bullets its way down into the poem, and strikes deep into the heart of the subject:

and on the flight your peregrine eyes guide me

That image has stayed with me for weeks. Imagine: peregrine eyes. A sense of sexual connectedness, enabled not by the poet’s sensual exploration but by the fierce, taking-my-prey eyes of the lover. Guiding is almost too soft a concept for the peregrine, except that the guidance is provided by the eyes—the potential for explosive danger remains in the beak, talon, everything else the peregrine is, with all that energy barely restrained, but spoken to by the eyes which hold back nothing. A charged, coiled potential is channeled into that moment of touching “your feet in the shade” and “your hands in the light”.

How much of this impression is the poet, how much the translator, how much the fancy and reaction of this reader? It is probably impossible to say. One might suggest that, with language so clear and simple, the job of the translator here is merely to scribe literally the move from Spanish to English. Yet even in such straightforward language, if we look closer, we see it isn’t simple.

Changes in Translation—One Example

Bilingual editions often give the same poem in both languages on facing pages. It makes for interesting reading if you are bilingual, to see them presented together. Or even if you are only poorly conversant in the original language, you can see the correspondence of word choices, wonder at their correspondence, or not, of effect.

Then Come Back doesn’t do this. In this version, the English language poems are first and then the same poems are given in the same order in Spanish. I imagine that for the Spanish language reader, this makes for a completely immersive experience, as it does for the English speaker reading only the English translations.

Here are the same two first lines of Poem 1, in Spanish:

Tus pies toco en la sombra, tus manos en la lus,
y en el vuelo me guían tus ojos aguilares

Notice that the eyes are “aguilares” not “peregrino” as I might have expected. If it were me, I would have translated “ojos aguilares” as “eagle eyes”. Why choose the less obvious peregrine over the eagle?

Well, it is always possible that “peregrine eyes” is the more colloquially used translation of a common phrase, but I think not. I’ll give you three other reasons that “peregrine” is a better choice than “eagle”, and then I think you’ll see why the translator is so essential to the process here:

  • Peregrine doesn’t drag along all the English-language connotations we have of eagle in the West and in the U.S. specifically. It doesn’t bring along all the political imagery or our emotional connections to eagle which have become so common as to make the eagle seem almost tame. By contrast, using “peregrine” keeps the focus on the animal, sexual, wild world.
  • The peregrine hawk is the world’s most widely known bird of prey because it is so broadly occurring. Peregrine hawks are found everywhere in the world except the arctic and the rain forest. It therefore doesn’t intimate a place beyond the wilderness—which is important because until the end of the poem we don’t get a place reference.
  • The place finally referenced in the poem, at the end, made synonymous with the lover’s heartbeat, the peregrine eyes, and the syllable which represents the lover (or which has been represented by the lover all along) is in southern Chile and western Argentine — the home of the Araucano, a pre-Incan people. The Auraucanos are known for their independence and for insistent resistence to being colonized by the Incas and later by the Spanish.  This fierce spirit fits perfectly the lover’s “peregrine eyes”. (It also helps to know that the Matilde mentioned in the poem is Neruda’s third wife and widely recognized as his muse.)

Neruda did not precisely choose the word peregrine in his original. However, in translation, “peregrine eyes” is a much better choice than the more literal “eagle eyes” might be.

Here’s the last line of the poem:

my blood pounded out your Araucan syllable.

Here the spirit of the Araucan lover is equated with the peregrine and its coiled energy, it’s insistent eyes, and oddly, a syllable, a specifically Araucan syllable. With this line, the poem takes a turn from celebrating the sensual and sexual. It requires you read back upon the poem the metaphors of syllable as lover, lover as syllable, and syllable standing in for the poem, the poetic, and lover standing in for muse. You are compelled to reach back up into the shade and light of the poem’s beginning, to see this poet as loving a poem, seducing it, being seduced and guided by it, as much as by any untamable lover. It’s a startling turn, unsettling in its unexpectedness. Most of all it is fitting, and hardly fits with my connotation of an eagle at all.

You can see why it takes me so long to get through this book—I stop and start and review the Spanish versions and look up words (English and Spanish) on line. I consider and then revise my considerations—I “Then Come Back” from impression to impression within the same poem.

So much richness, packed into so few lines.

Whether you are a long time Neruda fan, or never yet knew his work, I highly recommend this new book.