Christina Patterson: “The novice poet will try and express feelings they already know they have, but an experienced poet is one who knows that a poem is only a true poem if it reveals what you didn’t know you felt,” per Mimi Khalvati

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christina-patterson/what-we-can-learn-from-sh_b_2541679.html?utm_hp_ref=arts

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What We Can Learn From Sharon Olds and Sylvia Plath About Poetry and Confession

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“Now I come to look at love,” says Sharon Olds, “in a new way, now that I know I’m not/ standing in its light.” She says this in her poem “Unspeakable,” in her collection Stag’s Leap, which last week won the T S Eliot prize for poetry. It’s just one poem in a whole book of poems which speak of the agony of lost love. The collection starts with the moment the man she has been married to for 35 years, whose love, she says, made her look “out at the world as if from inside/ a profound dwelling,” tells her that his love has died.

It continues through the days, and weeks, that follow: in the conversations about “when to tell the kids,” in the speech she has prepared for her mother, in the “last look” and the “last hour.” And everywhere, there’s the pain, and the shame. “If I pass a mirror,” she says in her poem “Known to be left,” “I turn away, I do not want to look at her, and she does not want to be seen.” It’s clear, and it’s sharp, and it’s forensic in its detail, and it’s lyrical, and it’s beautiful, and it’s devastating. You can’t be human and read these poems and not sometimes hear yourself gasp.

But you can’t read quite a lot of Sharon Olds’s poetry and not sometimes hear yourself gasp. For more than 30 years, she has been writing poetry about love, and sex, and abuse, and childbirth, and death. She has been writing not just about the emotions that go with these things, but about blood, and sweat, and semen, and how you can, for example, be trying to breastfeed your baby, and then lie on the bathroom floor in the dark, with your “bared chest against the icy tile,” and slip your hand between your legs and ride “hard, against the hard floor.” Except that she doesn’t say “you,” of course, she says “I.”

Her poems are, among other things, a celebration of the human as animal. They are, as the poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje has said, “pure fire in the hands.” But they are, though very, very much her own, also in a tradition. “This,” said the poet Glyn Maxwell when he reviewed one of her early books, “is the sound the confessional hordes have been trying to utter since Lowell.”

It was the American critic Mack Rosenthal who first used the term “confessional” about a certain kind of poetry. It was in 1959, in a review of Robert Lowell’s collection Life Studies, which was about Lowell’s struggles with mental illness. “Confessional poetry,” said Rosenthal, is poetry that “goes beyond customary bounds of reticence or personal embarrassment.” And Lowell wasn’t the only poet to do it. John Berryman, in The Dream Songs, and W D Snodgrass, in Heart’s Needle, and Anne Sexton, in Live or Die, and Allen Ginsberg, in Howl, were all writing about aspects of their personal experience — mental illness, the suicidal impulse, unconventional sexual desires — that poetry hadn’t often covered before. But it was Life Studies which had the biggest influence. It was, said the American poet Stanley Kunitz, “probably the most influential book of modern verse since The Waste Land“.

When Sylvia Plath read it, she was “excited” by the “intense breakthrough into very serious, very personal, emotional experience” which she felt had been “partly taboo.” As anyone who knows anything about 20th century poetry knows, she went on to write some “very personal” poetry of her own. In her poem “Stings,” which is ostensibly about beekeeping, she has, she says, “a self to recover, a queen.” Is she, she asks, dead? Is she sleeping? “Where has she been?” Now, she says, “she is flying.”

It’s quite hard today to imagine a culture where anything “confessional” was in any way new. It’s everywhere: in newspapers, on blogs, on Twitter, on websites, on radio, on TV. You really can’t get away from it. You might want to, but you can’t. In books, in interviews, in columns, and in journalism, the word that leaps out, again, and again, and again, and again, is “I.”

In poetry, this has led to an awful lot of what the poet Hugo Williams (who won the T S Eliot prize in 2007) has called the “I am a garden of black and red sausages” school of poetry. Anyone who has had anything to do with poetry will have seen enough of this to keep them going for quite a while. When I was running the Poetry Society, there was a steady stream: for poetry competitions, for poetry magazines, and, perhaps for my pleasure, in the post. Even at The Independent newspaper, where we used to publish a daily poem, there was a stream: of poems, written by people who didn’t know how to write poems, but who thought that what Wordsworth called “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” was enough.

It isn’t. “Many collections,” said the poet Mimi Khalvati, when I asked her for her views, “seem to centre on a gripping issue, say the breakdown of a marriage, or the death of a partner, or infertility, but it would be a pity if this were to draw attention away from the way in which language itself is used.” Khalvati, whose most recent collection, Child, tells the story of her life from early childhood, is known as one of the best poetry teachers in the country. She founded a national training school for poets called the Poetry School to help poets develop the formal skills needed to write good poems. “The novice poet,” she said, “will try and express feelings they already know they have, but an experienced poet is one who knows that a poem is only a true poem if it reveals what you didn’t know you felt.”

The poet and novelist Lavinia Greenlaw, who’s Professor of Poetry at the University of East Anglia, agrees with her. “No one wants to be called a confessional poet,” she told me. “It suggests all you do is blurt your feelings. To work explicitly with the self requires extraordinary judgement, detachment and control. Sharon Olds, like Plath, has these qualities.”

She does. She certainly does. Very few poets match Sharon Olds in the discipline she brings to her best work. “My job,” she says in one poem in Stag’s Leap, “is to eat the whole car/ of my anger, part by part, some parts/ ground down to steel-dust.” The anger is there — everywhere — with the pain and the shame, but you feel it much, much more powerfully because, in the poems, it’s under such tight control.

“My poetry,” she said, when I interviewed her a few years ago, is “apparently personal. I’ve never said that the poems don’t draw on personal experience, but I’ve never said that they do.” With her latest collection, she has made it very clear that they do. She has said, in fact, that she wrote the poems when her husband left her, but promised her children she wouldn’t publish them for at least 10 years. For the reader, there may be an extra thrill in knowing that the things she writes about actually happened, but the thing is, it doesn’t matter. Whether or not they’re literally true, they’re true. “Beauty is truth,” said Keats in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and he didn’t mean things that were literally true. Truth is what you find not in spilled feelings on a page, or in tearful confessions on Oprah Winfrey’s sofa. Truth is what you find in art.

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sally-steenland/richard-blanco-inauguration-poet_b_2535186.html?utm_hp_ref=books

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The President and the Poet

At Monday’s inauguration ceremony, a poet echoed a president, transforming themes of connection and equality into vivid images of color, texture, and sound. Richard Blanco was the perfect choice for inaugural poet, embodying the rich kaleidoscope of our nation’s people. Blanco was conceived in Cuba, born in Spain, and came to the United States when he was two months old. Like President Barack Obama, he grew up negotiating different identities. And like the president, he loves his country.

Blanco read his poem after the president gave his inaugural speech. Although Blanco had written it before he’d heard the speech, his poem was an uncannily close — and beautiful — reflection of the president’s themes.

In the poem’s first lines, Blanco paralleled President Obama’s emphasis on “We, the people” — the notion that we are all connected, even as each of us is unique. “One sun rose over us today,” Blanco began. “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors, each one yawning to life.”

As if in call-and-response, President Obama said, “America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. … we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together.”

Another echo of the speech in Blanco’s poem was the belief that our nation’s strength comes from the hard work and dreams of ordinary people. “Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper — bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us, on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives — to teach geometry, or ring up groceries as my mother did for twenty years, so I could write this poem,” Blanco read.

Later in the poem, he read, “Hands digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane so my brother and I could have books and shoes.”

Again, the speech and the poem reflected each other. “America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work,” President Obama said. “When the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship … when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

Inaugural speeches can be lofty things, untethered to the realities of the day. Poems can be impenetrably dense, disconnected from plain speech.

This inaugural speech and poem were neither. Instead, they spoke clearly about who we are as a nation — and who we can be. They reminded us of our proud history and challenged us to a common purpose: bequeathing the sacred legacy of America to future generations.

After reciting the opening words of the Declaration of Independence, the president said,

Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on Earth.

 

Our adherence to those founding words — and our work to transform them from promise into reality — is what makes the United States exceptional. The fact that President Obama’s inauguration took place on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday holiday is especially meaningful, given that Dr. King worked courageously and tirelessly to confront America with its sin of racism — and to make our country expand its founding promise of justice and equality to include everyone.

In his speech, President Obama advanced the journey toward justice and equality one more step by including gay Americans in the Declaration’s truths. He said, “For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” Richard Blanco, who is gay, said after the ceremony that he appreciated the president connecting gay rights to civil rights and women’s rights.

President Obama ended his speech by collapsing the distance between himself and the rest of us. He told us that the oath he had just taken was not so different from the oath a soldier takes in signing up for duty, that an immigrant takes in becoming a new citizen, or the pledge of allegiance we all make to our country and flag.

We are many — and we are one.

Blanco’s poem ended on a similar theme, gathering us all up for tomorrow and the days to come:

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight     of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always — home,     always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon     like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop     and every window, of one country — all of us —     facing the stars     hope –a new constellation     waiting for us to map it,     waiting for us to name it — together.

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/edward-goldman/miriam-wosk-santa-monica_b_2531102.html

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Afraid of Nothing: The Art of Miriam Wosk

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When Miriam Wosk entered a gallery or museum opening, no matter how glamorous or how crowded the event was, all eyes turned to her. With her impressive figure, beautiful face and abundance of exotic jewelry, she was a live embodiment of the spirit of the eccentric Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, one of her personal favorites.

This last weekend, the Santa Monica Museum of Art unveiled a retrospective exhibition devoted to the art and life of Miriam Wosk, the well-known Los Angeles multi-media artist, who passed away in 2010. For many of her friends — and I was lucky to count myself among them — this exhibition is a welcome reminder of the strength and courage with which Miriam handled personal and professional challenges.

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Born in Canada, Miriam decamped to New York in her early 20s and soon established herself there as a commercial illustrator. This exhibition presents numerous examples of her works from this period, including the famous first cover of Ms. Magazine featuring an eight-armed housewife. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Gloria Steinem has contributed an essay to the exhibition catalog.

In 1979, Miriam uprooted herself once more and moved to Los Angeles, a city that she deeply loved, a city that helped her turn a page in her professional life. After moving to California, she walked away from a successful commercial career and embraced the freedom and struggle of life as a fine artist.

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Those who had the chance to see her work, to visit her home, to marvel at her large collection of photography and decorative art, will never forget the restless energy of Miriam’s imagination, where songs of angels collided with the growls of demons. The main gallery at SMMOA presents a generous sampling of Miriam’s mature works, created in the last decade of her life. This diverse body of large-scale collages, never shy of color, bristles with the energy and theatricality that became a trademark of her art.

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Miriam’s collages often started with an anatomical print, painted over and then layered and embellished with jewels and sequins, reflecting her fascination with the intersection between the natural and ornamental world. Being a workaholic, Miriam would be up in her studio till the wee hours of the night – doing, undoing, doubting and, on occasion, finding a light at the end of the tunnel.

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When she asked you what you thought of a work, there was no beating around the bush. She expected nothing less than an honest opinion and was strong enough to handle it. When Miriam returned from a month-long sojourn as an artist-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome in 2004, her artwork reflected a new level of visual intensity and willingness to break the rules. I often teased her that acting like a proper lady was not the best way to achieve a creative breakthrough. Why not try to be messy, uninhibited, even nasty, while making art? The works of her last years, and even in her last months while fighting cancer, show not so much a struggle between light and darkness but, rather, an acceptance of both as essential and natural to the cycle of life.

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Throughout her life, Miriam was a voracious collector of pottery, glass, furniture, jewelry, and, of course, fine art. One of the artists whose work Miriam collected in depth was the Los Angeles sculptor, designer and ceramicist Peter Shire, whose works are currently presented in a small exhibition in an adjacent gallery of SMMOA.

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The crowning achievement of her collection was the acquisition of a massive copper and aluminum wall hanging by El Anatsui, whose art Miriam fell in love with well before his career and value skyrocketed in the following years.

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There is a famous line in Russian poetry, “Lord, keep us from losing close friends.” But when these departed friends happen to be good artists, their spirit lives on in their art. And for those of us left behind, it’s a welcome consolation.

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28 Responses to Christina Patterson: “The novice poet will try and express feelings they already know they have, but an experienced poet is one who knows that a poem is only a true poem if it reveals what you didn’t know you felt,” per Mimi Khalvati

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