Singing School: A Chorus

Anthologies are intriguing in what they reveal of the editor's passions. Robert Pinsky opens his new poetry anthology (with its long title):-- with an anecdote about the great saxophonist, Dexter Gordon.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

SINGING SCHOOL, edited by Robert Pinsky, W.W. Norton Inc.
(New poetry in review)

Anthologies are intriguing in what they reveal of the editor's passions. Robert Pinsky opens his new poetry anthology (with its long title): SINGING SCHOOL: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters -- with an anecdote about the great saxophonist, Dexter Gordon. Gordon, when asked, "Where do you get your inspiration?", readily answered, "Lester Young." (with nods to Billie Holiday and the Ellington Band) In other words: Learn from the Greats.

Pinsky then quotes Yeats, from "Sailing to Byzantium" -- "And there's no singing school but studying/Monuments of its own magnificence." (Similarly, there is W. S. Merwin: "Learned the same song/at the feet of many masters," not to mention Frost's famous "the sound of sense" or his extolling of the "audial imagination.")

Pinsky is eager to remind the reader of what seems obvious, but somehow is rarely "said" and sometimes even scorned -- as other "schools" specialize in non-vocal pursuits in poetry. This collection is all about the importance of (not only) Learning to Write -- but the importance of Reading -- and hearing the voice of the poet. SINGING SCHOOL is the latest in what has become a Pinsky pedagogical legacy. There are prose works: Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry, The Sounds of Poetry, Poetry and the World, The Situation of Poetry. Then edited anthologies, like Essential Pleasures, An Invitation to Poetry, Poems to Read, Americans' Favorite Poems (also the new 25th Anniversary edition: Best of the Best American Poetry anthology.) The oft-repeated words "Sound," "Read" and "Poetry" underscore an ongoing obsession.

This anthology is his own singing school, featuring unforgettable poems, "historical models" -- (and although there are many examples of use of power vox at hand: no contemporary work.) Pinsky says in his introduction, "I have tried to give memorable examples of poetry, choices guided by the vital unity of writing and reading."

By paying deep attention to these masters, the poet becomes a poet, through "the particular work" of listening" -- a freeing yet "stringent" approach. "The sound of language in an actual voice" or vocality, has been a key focus for Pinsky in his many meditations on the art. In an era of distraction -- (and, in poetry, the "valorization" of disconnection, disjunction, "indeterminacy"), Pinsky is eager to breathe life back into the sense-sources of poetry. Long before there were English departments, CW programs, or "writing exercises" -- there were voices singing -- in every language, addressing what we might term (inaccurately) "contemporary" issues. Here we have, for example, Aphra Behn, writing about a guy who can't get it up, in an age before Viagra; Alan Dugan in the maverick voice of a drunk soldier ragging on the sheep-like followers of War ("ba ba's") in the ancient Battle of Granicus: Sterling Brown on the streets of Harlem near "a dago fruit stand at three A.M." -- and so on.

Everyone talks about "voice" in writing workshops -- but rarely are we instructed in what "voice" means. These voices (Jorge de Lima to Frank O'Hara, Elizabeth I to Sylvia Plath), show the reader, over and over, how an unforgettable poem (one that stays in memory, because it is memorable) is put together. Sound old-fashioned? It shouldn't. Rap triumphs because the human ear loves rhyme, loves the timbre of what "sounds right" in the ear. Poetry, no matter how aesthetically and intellectually performative or no matter how theoretically removed -- requires, finally, connection to a human voice in order to be poetry. And those who desire to enter the art, will sit, wisely, at the feet of the masters, listening. Till it's time to get up and be heard in one's own voice (in whatever pattern or variation) singing -- like many of the other books reviewed here.

BREAKING THE JAWS OF SILENCE, Sixty American Poets Speak to the World, edited by Sholeh Wolpe, The University of Arkansas Press

Speaking of voices, and "getting up to be heard" -- here we have sixty-in-chorus, speaking out against injustice and repression throughout the world. Despite the collection's rather unfortunate title (reminiscent of torture itself) -- the poets (randomly ordered) set their own rhetorical conventions. Some of the poems ring with truth's fervor, others meditate, swerving, on how to "answer" power.

Andrew Hudgins' poem, "Summer of '09" hits a tone that is powerfully convincing -- and seems to riff on the book's "breaking jaw" title. "My father was not summoned to receive./in bloody, hardening sheets, my body --/ each death and forced confession a scorched/ tooth the dragon, in its madness./wrenched from its roaring, necrotic jaw."

Sholeh Wolpe provides generous service in showing readers the different ways that poets commit to their own voices as they call out The Deadly Silencer, sounding off in a world that does not listen, indifferent to their commitment. (Robert Bly's poem, beginning the collection, speaks to this indifference and apathy.) Despite the world's resistance, this collection affirms that what Shelley said is true: "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

STAG'S LEAP. Sharon Olds, Knopf

Sharon Olds' STAG'S LEAP (which recently won the Pulitzer Prize) is a long look at the dissolution of a marriage in poems that are (a reported decade after a divorce) written from a remove, but not without a sense of enduring shock. There is little peace in these poems, yet they exhibit an eerie ominous surface calm -- like beautifully wrapped incendiary devices. They lose themselves in language so stunning, it's as if the author, in exercising masterful control over the subject of loss of control (in marriage, in life) maintains composure only through litanies of lyrical self-reduction:

It is in the past, enough looking back,
it is gone, it is more over with
than the shocks of childhood. Rope of heaven,
ladder of hex, all is in
the tending, and we cannot tend
another's rows. But I did not tend
my knowledge of who he was -- nor did he
his of me, nor did he care to.

"Something That Keeps"

This "disappearing", while simultaneously presiding in an incantatory narrator's voice, is how Sharon Olds creates a double persona in language. STAG'S LEAP heightens this familiar use of incantation. It doesn't matter that the spell has been broken or that the catastrophe has occurred longago. Her command of the present (as it investigates and re-animates the past) is her oracular power, which is absolute here along with her dead serious charm. Her readers, enchanted, follow her into the bitter bracing whirlwind: the archetypal dis-assembling of Man/Woman. The stag makes his/her strategic leaps -- then deepfall, into "naïve" knifeblade irony:

Ickle, Ockle, Blue Bockle,
Fishes in the Sea.
If You Want a Left Wife,
Please Choose Me.

BOOK OF DOG, Cleopatra Mathis, Sarabande Books

If Sharon Olds' book traces the contours of trauma (in particular the trauma of divorce), Cleopatra Mathis' BOOK OF DOG does likewise, yet their voices strike different chords. Olds' voice is redolent with long-endured shock -- Cleopatra Mathis' voice keens, turning grief to a harsh music in its exact moment: a tremulous but held pitch.

None of the heft we arranged on the table, so much
like a dog asleep on his side --
how can this be: white dog, white box and the crossing in flames.
You are deaf with the roar, you are a burned boat
bearing a stone box bearing ashes still hot in your hands;
and you carry it with you, unbroken seal.

"Book of Dog"

Animals (from the original word for "soul", anima) haunt these poems, which are also about a marriage breaking up, but human drama seems, if not overshadowed, rather re-made in altered context. The poet has been admitted into the kingdom of animal wisdom, (of sagesse, that ancient word). She exists now, as animals do, in a purely intuitive present -- where the past looms, as does death, but within a different order. Not just the great white dog, dying, then dead -- but plovers, foxes, deer, coyote -- all are part of this order, all entering death, but without human sense, human "values". And insects, "All praise to the light on the wing/ of the wasp fallen to the wood floor". Or the spider in her fragile indispensable web:

As if it were a plot, not a home
built with her very self. And this hunger --
this need to take all she can harvest
inside her, no end to her want --
no, how she keeps alive
is not luminous, but strict and necessary,
this moving sideways into the dark.


In this totemic, sorrowing work, Cleopatra Mathis reveals a grief so pure and learned that it burns, a solitary flame, beyond self-pity, beyond what is bearable. These are unbested, unbroken, unrelentingly beautiful poems -- refusing solace -- and singing, still.

ANIMAL SPIRITS, Tom Healy, Monk Books (with drawings by Duke Riley)

Cleopatra Mathis' animal spirits, as profound guides of the human, differ from Tom Healy's interpretation of "animal spirits" -- though perhaps the idea of "guide" fosters both. This arresting chapbook (with wonderfully-animated animal drawings by the engaging provocateur artist Duke Riley) sets Healy's poems in the unlikely yet apt context of behavioral economics, with an epigraph from (of all people), John Maynard Keynes. Keynes defines animal spirits as a kind of dynamism ("a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction..") So we have human emotions placed within a shifting and "purchased" sense of the self -- something rather like capitalism, but with lineation.

These ten poems seem both dreamy and predatory ("eyes gone owl") chronicling a daunting farm childhood filled with family violence and "gender" uncertainty and awe -- but (as Mr. Keynes has allowed) the marketplace pumps up with "consumer confidence" and we also have a place for the "self-made" -- and over-the-top hilarious riffs:

I am a gay white male in my early 50's
(but looking much younger, I might add).
There is nothing I cannot do....
I would like to think I have sophistication and style
And I am licensed in cosmetology, so I can do your hair.


Animal spirits keep stalking and Tom Healy continues to document and dispatch emotional transgression gracefully and fluidly (a stylistic strength). Thus we are spun from humor to a devastating poem, "The Grandmother's Suicide Note", which ends, "But never mind./I no longer remain/and I was never yours." The nuclear family, as the "market" model, is revealed once again as a cruel archaic model of a behavorial unit..

Yet this poet never stops taking risks. A poem about climbing a mountain appears ("Base Camp") and the air grows thin, but still argumentative ("With everything our bodies know/strong or broken,/we never have the luxury/of making ourselves simple.")

But it is the self, in its complexity and vulnerability, that claims its luxury here -- if not in making itself simple, then making simple the enactment of some greater mystery. Call it human behavior and the marketplace, call it "animal spirits", this is Tom Healy making trouble, making love, in ten poems of implacable poise, swift with acquisition.

HEMMING THE WATER, Yona Harvey, Four Way Books

Yona Harvey's title makes one think of Keats and his famous epitaph, "writ in water". But it defines also another impossible task: "taking up", stitching moving waters -- putting together a poet's poems.

Music underscores all of the poems in this bold first book -- especially the presence of Mary Lou Williams, jazz pianist and composer, (and an inspiration here) -- shadow-arranging strong movement. giving singing authority to lines:

around you
like itself, which means you

eloquently than the lampposts
boasting their specters of light,

or the woman
clutching her daughter's shirt
above a basket, the sedative twilight
of the gods trapped momentarily

in the pane, which separate
the woman
& you

"Black Winged Stilt"

Yona Harvey has come up with her own jazz rhythms, something ecstatically freed from itself: "You march on silk/You thread the bobbin/Keep the motor underfoot" -- and later in the same poem: "Always ghosting in the sound", which must mean stitching into the audible, so the reader ends up beyond sound, in the presence of the "elusive little god" she talks about and successfully pursues in poem after poem. That deity takes us away from ourselves, from ego, and into the rigors of something shimmering, something "not quite what the Creator intended", but has admiringly blessed.

BEGGING FOR IT. Alex Dimitrov, Four Way Books

Alex Dimitov's BEGGING FOR IT seems at first, playful -- negotiating a contract between a sense of the sacred and a love of the not-so-sacred. He notes, "...the gods have no choice/but to let us live a little -" The off-and-on carefree and infectiously flirtatious tone, is not, however, the "point" of these poems.

The book's sobering epigraph from Rimbaud asks, "What flag will I bear? What beast worship? What shrine besiege? What hearts break? What lies tell? -- And walk through whose blood?" This quote opens the door to a personal story which is never told -- and the ongoing elusive themes of exile and loss --".. how vast/death is and nothing fits in it."

Nothing exactly "fits" in the "America" drawn here. Dimitrov describes a family leaving a "home" country, with suitcases "too heavy to check". This aura of transcience, of impermanence, streams through the collection. "But I knew how to stand in the empty church./Without God or pity." God is invoked often, in fact, "God" and "America" are both summoned as frequently as a conservative "patriot" might call them up. Yet, while these may be the poems of a worshipper, they are hardly the poems of a nutty patriot -- or a limited believer. The "god" who shows up here is an empty room, a mirror. ("See, I don't like being heartless...") but there is hope in the simple idea of a loving being.

In the dark edgy "The Composer's Lover" , we hear that "We had an hour without music./A nerve brightly turning in the closed room of the mind." This poet's mind is open to all experience, as a traveler is open to experience -- through an endless sense of passing through "closed" rooms -- "I have forgotten our history."

In fact, history is remembered here -- even as other poems spoof the idea of the "personal" story and "politics". All is remembered fiercely -- each threat and wonder, each injury and enticement. This is a remarkable debut by a searching and eloquent young poet.

IF I SHOULD SAY I HAVE HOPE, Lynn Melnick, YesYes Books

The "if", the "might" or "maybe" that drives IF I SHOULD SAY I HAVE HOPE opens into an equation beyond the conditional: the uncertainty of "if" miraculously, suddenly equaling the emphatic "I have hope". The poems (and titles of poems) throughout this collection dance within this compelling (if questionable) equivalency:

1. "I was dozens of girls back then, and some of them happy"

2. "Where am I? you think. But aren't you always/in love?

3. "In which our Heroine's Past is Recounted
and Future Foretold"

These poems are brilliantly dissembling and arch, yet very focused on -- and supremely smart about -- the subjective history of the self . And the selves of this intrepid Heroine come complete with sendups of the idea of history -- as in, "When California Arrives It Lasts All Year." This preoccupation with blowing up history and narrative produces a riveting meta-narrative or meta-meta narrative. Tiptoeing, then sprinting, is Melnick's signature style. Again and again, there seems to be a warning issued ("There's some kind of crazy on the way") -- though the poems travel sturdily through their syntactical shattering and harmonious derangement -- and out the other side, into (maybe, maybe not!) hope. Or the intriguing illusion of hope. The author has the answers here -- all framed as wry and tantatlizing questions.

THE EXCHANGE, Sophie Cabot Black, Graywolf Press

To be in love with a lover who is dying is to die oneself. Yet the poems in THE EXCHANGE (which chronicle the failing of the beloved friend) are emphatically alive. This fierce energy breathes life back into the hopeless soul -- so that even a poem which graphically recounts the annihilative force of chemotherapy -- reveals a shocked and broken man grasping life by the throat, and ultimately blazing up, a hero:

..and it takes everything

to tell her what he needs, a if he had come upon
The one tree still standing, and understood


That the dying friend and lover is also a poet, who has also written of his own demise, could easily have undermined Sophie Cabot Black's unwavering commitment to depiction itself -- but luckily has not. The reduction to mere biography is resisted -- nothing but the anonymity of the intimately known and addressed soul is on the page.

Again the title instructs the reader. We are reminded repeatedly of the story of Abraham and Isaac -- how the loved one's body (the body of the son) is given up to "fate" (a seemingly heartless god) or bartered in sacrifice. The question of exchange also becomes: What can I pay to take away this required sacrifice? How, in mortal barter, do we tip the ledger back to the "life" column? Mercury's spirit floats over, un-named but present: trickster god of money and trouble. Thus the appearance of poems with titles like "Preservation of Capital," following in grim logic. "In one pocket/the noise of plenty, the other dread."

Poets, of course, have written of money and barter before (witness Tom Healy or Susan Wheeler's Ledger, Tim Donnelly's meditations on money and corporate machinery, Ezra Pound's loony international monetary conspiracies, Auden's image of "brokers...roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse") yet there is no self-conscious sense of precedent. Sacrifice and "counting up" is a way of keeping alive what we love, and failing -- this is the ongoing and desperate revelation.

The Exchange is Sophie Cabot Black's best and most eloquent book to date -- its stark elegies are filled with doubt, but also filled with a radiant love.

There are two other new books of poems that I'll just mention in passing -= Dana Goodyear's THE ORACLE OF HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD and THE FORTUNATE ERA by Arthur Smith. I've "endorsed" both -- and I recommend each book with the highest praise.

-- Carol Muske-Dukes

Popular in the Community