frank wilson

Summer Reading Recommendations

sunrise woods 1

Photograph by g emil reutter

 

Here are the top ten book reviews based on readership at North of Oxford for the first six month of 2017. Consider them for your summer reading.

 

Magnesium by Ray Buckley

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/magnesium/

Shoot the Messenger by John Dorsey

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/shoot-the-messenger/

100 Selected Poems by e.e. cummings

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/01/01/100-selected-poems-by-e-e-cummings/

Unmaking Atoms by Magdelina Ball

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/06/01/unmaking-atoms-by-magdalena-ball/

The Way Back by Joyce Meyers

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/06/01/the-way-back-by-joyce-meyers/

Seek the Holy Dark by Clare L. Martin

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/07/01/seek-the-holy-dark-by-clare-l-martin/

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’s Poetics

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/03/03/whos-afraid-of-virginia-woolfs-poetics/

Martin Fierro by Jose Hernandez

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/07/01/martin-fierro-by-jose-hernandez/

Bird Flying through the Banquet by Judy Kronenfeld

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/06/01/bird-flying-through-the-banquet-by-judy-kronenfeld/

Justine by Lawrence Durrell

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/01/01/justine-by-lawrence-durrell/

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Magnesium

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson
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John Stuart Mill drew a shrewd distinction between eloquence and poetry. The former, he said, is heard. The latter is overheard.
The best of the poems in Ray Buckley’s Magnesium demonstrate the soundness of Mill’s observation. Take this one, for instance:
I was mistaken when I said
those things to you.
I’m apologizing now.
For being wrong and for
being very sure I wasn’t.
This sounds exactly like something you might hear in the booth next to yours in a restaurant, and it reminds one of how poetic the fragments of ordinary discourse can often sound — and be. Like many of the poems in this collection, this one’s first line serves as its title. None of the poems is titled “Magnesium,” though many of them and many of the lines that compose them bring to mind that experiment one did in high school chemistry class, when you set alight a thin strip of magnesium wire and watched it sizzle. “Who will reveal us to what we are thinking?” has just that sort of sparkle.
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Poems are not the only things here. There are prose interludes, and what are best described as playlets, fragmentary dialogues. One of these, “Piccadilly Circus,” has two guys in a phone booth at the London landmark trying to reach a girl to tell her where to meet them. It would make for an effectively absurd skit a la Samuel Beckett (who is referenced from time to time in the book). There is a sort of narrative at work here, defined largely by a sense of disaffection and the need for apology. This can be wryly self-deprecating, as in the conclusion to “One Too Many Things”:
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I work very hard to be considered significant.
I have intentions of having a very elevating photograph taken of me
at some point so it can accompany the paragraphs I’ve written
dedicated to my abiding attention to my own immortality.
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It does seem that the speaker in these poems has much to be apologetic about. There are the references to drugs: “I’d be in better shape to say something to you/if I had something other than 2631 in my system.” Cyclobenzaprine hydrochloride, known by the number 2631 on the pill, is a muscle relaxant, which would seem no big deal. But a later, one-line poem announces “I ran out of narcotics. But I have this bottle of muscle relaxers.” And the very next poem, also a one-liner, notes that “It’s very good for one’s career to affect a drug problem.” So we may well be dealing with a less than reliable narrator, which might be a problem were it not that the speaker himself sometimes doubts his reliability:
I’m sorry I made you believe I was a liar. The strangeness of my honesty was a red herring. … I don’t know how to properly explain to you how false everything you believe is.
The recurring sense of unfulfillment grows trying at times, but one never doubts its authenticity. It would appear to be a common mode of being these days. And every now and then there is the exultation of “Be Grace”:
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Tell us how you started it all.
Grow roots in us which we’ll
Wish ourselves the prisoners of
Reach in like all there is is reaching.
Be grace, and tell us your secret.
Like eternity, shine like eternity.
Go into us, contain us.
And be grace. 
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Ray Buckley is worth keeping an eye on.
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Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog Books, Inq. — The Epilogue. Email him at PresterFrank@gmail.com.
 
 
 

Daniel Hoffman – In Poets Words

Daniel-Hoffman courtesy of John Simon Guggenheim Foundation
I had chance encounters with the twenty second Poet Laureate of the United States, Daniel Hoffman, (April 3, 1923 – March 30, 2013). Once at the Edgar Allan Poe House in Philadelphia; at a poetry festival in Media, Pa.; and at the book release of Elizabeth McFarland’s Over the Summer Water.
In reading two of his collections, Broken Laws and The City of Satisfaction I was struck by his lyrical intensity, eye for detail. Richard Howard wrote: Daniel Hoffman’s gifts exact a broken music quite his own from the broken laws of the universe in which we carry our identity papers.
I reached out to several poets who have had contact with or knew Daniel Hoffman over the years. Although all those I reached out for could not participate, those included in this post did so in honor of Daniel Hoffman and National Poetry Month. Poet Nathalie Anderson,Poet Gregory Djanikian, Poet Laureate of California Dana Gioia,  Poet Diane Sahms-Guarnieri, Poet Bob Small, and Poet Frank Wilson have been gracious to participate and reveal the reach of the poet Daniel Hoffman during his lifetime and beyond.  – g emil reutter
 
Daniel Hoffman – In Poets Words
hoffman reading at A Murder of Ravens at the Writers House
 
From Gregory Djanikian
 
Reminiscences
 
    
     Dan Hoffman was the first poet I ever met in my life. I mean a poet with published books, with a reputation, with a way of talking about poetry that had the force of experience behind it. He may even have been the first such poet I saw in the flesh.
     As a freshman new at Penn, I was trying to find my way as a writer, wondering if the poems I had written in high school were good enough to catch someone’s eye, or if I would ever have the will and resolve to continue making more poems and shape my life around that making.  But did poets actually exist in the real world? Weren’t they chimeras one read about in books? Didn’t one discuss them as if they were only words on the page? And that’s when I saw Dan Hoffman walking sprightly through Bennett Hall in his sport coat and tie, maybe to a faculty meeting where things of import might be decided, or, what was even more compelling, to the poetry workshop he directed for students where moments of literary history, I was sure, were being forged and lives, changed.
     Poetic careers on campus, in large part, had a chance of flourishing if you were invited into Dan’s workshop. I had tried to enter it a couple of times, submitting a sheaf of my best writing as a passe-partout but, sadly, for all my sincere efforts, I had no success. It was difficult being an exile from it, feeling that the high mysteries of art were reserved for the enviable few, those tested upperclassmen, perhaps, whose raw talent or sheer tenacity had earned them an invitation into that lucky apprenticeship. It took me three tries to finally cross the threshold of his classroom and it began for me a life-long devotion to the craft of poetry, and a life-long friendship with the man himself. 
     If it weren’t for Dan, I don’t think I’d be who I am. As his student, I learned how the constraints of the villanelle might produce an incantatory and beautiful music, how the sonnet was a delightful way of bringing two paradoxical arguments together in one place, how free verse had its own, indelible form, and form itself was an occult rearrangement of language, and how, on really magical days, the muse was a white goddess whose barbarous knowledge could make of the moon a song in the sky.
     Over the years, I became more his friend and less his student, and we shared many memories of our time together which amounted to over 45 years. One of my favorite images of him still is how, after he walked in the door of our house, and almost before he took off his coat, he’d sit at the piano and stride into a ragtime piece, a little Joplin or Luckey Roberts, sip his scotch and water, and launch into another tune.  He seemed so transported and happy when he played music. If you asked him to dinner, he provides the entertainment, and, as an added blessing, a great red wine for the meal.
 
    It’s a wonder sometimes how one life might intermingle with another in the best of ways. As I’ve said elsewhere, had I not known Dan, I would have had to imagine him.  He was a mentor, exemplar, an advocate for all his students’ work, and an abiding friend.  As I think back on it, it was my utter good fortune to have crossed paths with him on that day long ago in my freshman year when I, young and unsure of my writerly prospects, resolved to begin knocking on his door.  What a remarkable change in my life occurred when it was opened. 
 
                           Photo of Daniel Hoffman by Lin Tan. Taken March 29, 2007 on West Chester University campus at a poetry reading by Dana Gioia.                                                        
 
From Dana Gioia
 
REREADING DANIEL HOFFMAN
 
I remember being astonished as a young man by Cyril Connolly’s assertion in Enemies of Promise that it was nearly impossible to write a book that lasted ten years. Ridiculous, I thought, good books last forever!  Young and idealistic, I did not understand the ineluctable powers of oblivion. Connolly listed various reasons why books lost their force and relevance—mostly changes in political, literary, and intellectual fashion. Today we can add our own catalogue to Connolly’s tally, including a general decline in reading, even among writers, the distractions of a media-saturated environment, and a culture obsessed with novelty. As cultural memory grows ever shorter, nearly everything that doesn’t generate a profit slips into obscurity.
 
I mention Connolly because his brilliant and disturbing book came to mind when I thought of how quickly Daniel Hoffman seems to have disappeared from current literary discourse.  When I mention his work to younger writers, I get a blank stare. It’s not that they haven’t read Hoffman; the new generation hasn’t even heard of him. The situation shows how easily a fine author’s reputation disappears in our accelerated lives. The great dumbing-down of culture includes the intellectuals. Indeed, it includes us—yes, you and me–unless we resist by reading and remembering.
 
A writer is remembered by his or her best works, and I would suggest that Hoffman wrote at least two volumes of enduring originality and power–one in prose, the other in verse.  The prose book is Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe (1972); the verse is his book-length poem, Middens of the Tribe (1995). “Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice,” Connolly observed. I have read these books several times over the years, and they remain fresh and arresting.
 
Hoffman’s Poe book had an enormous impact on me as a young man—not simply in regard to Poe—but also as an example of a critical work that went beyond scholarship and became a literary performance. His study of Poe was not only insightful; it was also moving, amusing, and compelling. Hoffman’s tour de force was exactly the sort of thing I hoped to write myself. As a student, I had no idea how rare Hoffman’s combination of scholarly and creative talent was in literary life. He was one of the finest American poet-critics of the twentieth century.
 
I want to mention another of Hoffman’s critical books since it seems relevant to my protest against the forces of oblivion. A few years after I had read his Poe study, I discovered his earlier volume, Barbarous Knowledge (1967), a consideration of myth in the poetry of W. B. Yeats, Robert Graves, and Edwin Muir. Forty years ago I admired Hoffman for writing seriously on Muir, a superb and original poet not much appreciated in the U.S. Seen now from the perspective of another century, this book seems more precious still because even Graves, who in my youth had been declared the most famous living poet in the world by Time, has mostly slipped from literary memory. Hoffman’s wide reading and intellectual independence is more valuable than ever. Barbarous Knowledge allows us to remember him and two forgotten modern masters.
 
Finally, let me mention Middens of the Tribe, which is a book almost no one seems to have read. Long gestated and revised over many years, Hoffman published this ambitious volume late in his career. It seems, at least to me, his finest poetic work. It is certainly his most challenging and least characteristic. A compelling book-length narrative poem, Middens of the Tribe is formally adventurous and ingeniously constructed. The poem could best be described as a Faulknerian family tragedy presented in discontinuous episodes. Middens of the Tribe is violent, sexual, fragmented, and enigmatic.  Despite its disruptive modernist structure, the poem has enormous narrative momentum and psychological authority. I wish more readers knew Hoffman’s masterful and mysterious poem. It is one of the few major narrative poems of his generation.
 
I praise these books not at the expense of Hoffman’s other works, but because I feel it’s most useful to recommend specific titles rather than general praise. These volumes are good places to begin reading Daniel Hoffman. If a whole book is too much, at least try a single poem. 
Read “Sonnet,” an incisive and still timely poem (which is not itself a sonnet) about the precarious power of literature. After sampling it, no serious reader will stop there.
daniel hoffman courtesy of newington cropsey cultural studies

From Nathalie F. Anderson

The Real Thing

I first met Daniel Hoffman on the page. As a grad student down south, immured in my carrel, I too often found myself walled in by literary criticism that seemed written to be musty, and literary theory that seemed written to be cryptic. But Dan’s books weren’t like that: Barbarous Knowledge and Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe told their urgent stories complicatedly, grippingly. This was literary history that investigated, literary biography that speculated, literary criticism that illuminated, and all of it — above all — engaging. Although I was reading these books for their content, of course, I appreciated too the personality of the author that was everywhere evident in their pages: his intelligence, his perceptiveness, his sympathetic humanity, his wit. I remember pausing in my headlong rush through Poe to think, “This is work worth doing. This is the real thing.”

It’s significant, then, that when I consider Dan’s own poetry, I think most focally of a passage from the start of Brotherly Love:

Is it real, this life

That you are living, is it

Real?

Whether through history or through personal recollection, Dan’s work often offers us narratives of the “real,” but complicated by that characteristic challenge. What version of events can claim to be true? What currents flow intermingling through what we take to be a simple stream of happenstance or consciousness? What heights transcend or depths intensify the everyday unattended moment? If, as T.S. Eliot puts it, “human kind / cannot bear very much reality,” what is it that keeps us — in Wallace Stevens’ phrase — “coming back and coming back / To the real”? And what distinguishes the “real” from the “Real”? Dan’s poetry appreciates always the materiality of the world we live in, but pushes us towards the larger questions, the ethical questions, the philosophical questions.

Because I knew Dan before I knew him, so to speak, meeting him in the flesh was all the more daunting, like opening the door to a one-on-one Ph.D. oral exam — all that wit, all that erudition, all that rich experience of the world of letters, all that brilliantly incisive discernment trained on you. I’ve never left a conversation with him without feeling that my eyes have been opened to some fresh insight or to some convolution of thought or to some revealing circumstance. Dan lives the intellectual life so fully that it’s difficult not to feel humbled in his company, yet he shares that life so comprehensively and so generously that you leave him energized, grateful for all he offers.

But when I say “he” — as anyone who knows Dan will understand — I really mean “they”: Daniel Hoffman and Elizabeth McFarland went everywhere together, and shared a like intelligence, a similar aesthetic, a honed ethical awareness, that trenchant wit. After her death, which shocked us all, I was moved and complimented when Dan asked me to present her work with him in readings at Swarthmore College and at the Rosenbach Museum and Library. My favorite line of hers is still “She always wanted her kisses back,” because to want something back implies a demand not only for goods returned, but also for reciprocity: if she’s not kissed back, she’ll take back those kisses! That she and Dan found that reciprocity, that mutuality, was obvious to all who saw them together. It’s hard to imagine companions more superbly matched.

Among my favorites of Dan’s poem’s, then — despite his widely recognized allegiance to poetic tradition — is “Words,” where (he says) he’s giving up rhythm and rhyme for the “gutreaction poem / of the soul’s discovering,” “poems that are themselves the / sound of your / slip rustling and the / scent that laces / the air you wear” — poems that we know speak of and to his love. “Goodby, words,” he concludes; “They / do become you,” and that knowing wink — the words that flatter the wearer, the words that create what they describe, the words that home in on their source and reason, the words that know just what they love and live for — explain the speaker’s sudden reticence, his decision to let the said be said: “I’ve / no more to say.” Yes, this truly is the real real thing.

*Reprinted from Per Contra with permission of Nathalie Anderson

daniel-hoffman-and-diane-sahms-guarnieri1
 
 
From Diane Sahms-Guarnieri
 
 
Today, March 7, 2017, I search for one of Hoffman’s books, and extracting it from my library, I revisit Darkening Waters, where once he wrote: Signed with pleasure/ for Diane Guarnieri / Daniel Hoffman//24.X.2002.
 
At that time, October 24, 2002, this was his ninth poetry book, which he read from at Kelly Writers House on that date; and with his consent, I filmed his reading for a graduate course: “Using Technology in the Classroom (Secondary Education).  My presentation, as a Sec. Ed. English teacher, was a lesson in poetry.  My fellow grad students (of mathematics, science, history, etc.) probably not the least bit interested in poetry, were won over by Hoffman’s reading of his poem, “Mean Street.” 
 
I choose that poem’s clip for my technology-in-the-classroom lesson, because I believed it to be his most descriptive and passionate read, videotaped by me, and re-played for a group of Education majors, most of whom grew up in Philadelphia. 
 
From “Mean Street:”
 
In sneaks, in shorts, in tie-dyed tee-shirts
one burly blonde, the other swarthy,
leaner,younger, snatch at each other
cirlcling, till one gets an armlock
on the other’s head…
 
… — the lean one
shoves his knee between the other’s
legs and down they fall, hard
on the cracked pavement…
 
…but  the lean one
prevents and pinions him, then grasps
a fistful of his long hair and beats
the back of his head on the pavement, a thud
and a thud, a thud –If y’ever call
me that again –a thud –I’ll KILL ya,
da’ya hear?…
 
a couple or three more thuds—so easy!—
and the guy’d be dead…
 
 
At 79, wearing his small and thin framed body, balding head with thick- wild- wavy hair still on the sides, Hoffman (who was probably never in a street fight) had witnessed a brutal brawl between two younger men viciously fighting almost to the death of one of them.  He was so moved by the aggression, violence – he penned it.  He wrote what he had witnessed and read it as if he were still there, “grimly within the ring of onlookers.”  He, too, an onlooker – present once again!
 
After giving this powerful strong-arm read, which I filmed for my colleagues, the calm and very often composed Professor Hoffman appeared a bit disheveled and strainfully exhausted.  Looking up from the page and joking rather candidly with Penn’s erudite audience said, “Someone asked why I didn’t try to break it up?”   All laughed, even my colleagues when the film clip was shown to them. 
 
This unapologetic poet knew it was all about the poem, which by the way led Hoffman to another poem, as one poem sometimes can bridge into another one.  Here’s the other poem from Darkening Water. What do you think?
 
 
Violence
 
After I’d read my poem about a brawl
between two sidewalk hustlers—one,
insulted, throws the other down and nearly
kills him—over coffee and cookies a grave
 
senior citizens reproved me: How
could you see such violence and you
didn’t try to stop them?—Oh, I explained,
it wasn’t like that, really –I saw
 
two guys in a shoving match and thought
I’d write about aggression, what
Anger really feels like…Yes
 
and if the one got killed
it would be on your head.
You should’ve stopped them, he said.
daniel hoffman 2
 
From Frank Wilson
 
I can’t claim to be among Dan Hoffman’s close acquaintances. We’ve only met a handful of times and never for any unusual length of time. On my end, however, this hardly figures at all, because I regard getting to know Dan at all as one of the boons of my life.
I think we first met at one of the poetry conferences at West Chester University. What I remember about our first conversation is that it was precisely that: a conversation. Literature figured, of course, but didn’t predominate. Poetry came up, sure, but in a perfectly natural way. It was actually easy to forget that Dan is one of our best poets and a former poet laureate. In retrospect, I realize that one of the things that makes Dan a great poet is that, for him, life comes first and the poetry grows out of that.
But the time with Dan I remember best is when my wife and I visited him one summer afternoon at his home in Swarthmore. We sat on the porch for a bit and, as usual, the conversation covered a wide range of topics. Eventually, though, Dan talked for a while about his wife, the poet Elizabeth McFarland, who had recently passed away. His love for her was palpable. She had been for 13 years the poetry editor of the Ladies Home Journal, and had brought to its readers every week poetry by the best practitioners of the art around. She also paid those practitioners better than anybody else did. At the time of our visit, Dan was putting together a collection of her work.
I reviewed that book. I said that Elizabeth was “someone for whom a poem is not primarily a literary artifact, but rather a necessary utterance, without which a given experience would not be quite complete.” Precisely the same can be said of Dan and his work.
And that is what makes even a casual acquaintance with him so enriching. There is, in fact, nothing ever casual about meeting Dan. It is always what the existentialists call an encounter, an engagement with a person, not a persona. Had I never met him, my life would be the poorer.
 
 daniel hoffman courtesy of academey of american poets
 
From Bob Small
 
Though Daniel Hoffman had attended a number of our readings, (Poets and Prophets), both here and in Swarthmore, we had never thought to invite him, due to his status. However in 2010, we had decided to ask him, being aware that we were a little grassroots organization with limited funding. To our pleasure and surprise, he agreed and the result was his reading that took place on Tuesday, May 18th, 2010 at Moonstone Arts Center in Philadelphia.
 
He gave a great reading and he was a great poet, but did not wear the mantle of an “internationally-known poet”. After that I remembered running into him a few times in our local market, the Swarthmore Co-op, and he would ask me, “How the series was going”. In sum, he was very down to earth considering all he had achieved.
 
Learn more about Daniel Hoffman:
 
 
Daniel Hoffman reads 3 poems by Elizabeth McFarland: https://vimeo.com/73316308
 
Daniel Hoffman reads “”Awoke into a Dream of Singing” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bOq7ugyqvU
 
Daniel Hoffman discusses and reads The Raven: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flKaqoHS7Kk
 
 
 
Daniel Hoffman – The Drexel Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVk0d0UmNtk
 
Daniel Hoffman Profile at Project Muse: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/525425/summary
 
 
 

Frank Wilson on the poetry of Marion Deutsche Cohen

closer to dyingtruth and beauty.what wearing
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Reviewed by Frank Wilson
The second of these volumes takes its title from a course Marion Deutsche Cohen developed and teaches at Arcadia University. The subtitle of that course is “Mathematics in Literature.”
Cohen’s day job is teaching math, and math figures a good deal in her poetry. Lest you think that might be off-putting, fear not. When it comes to math, I am without a trace of comprehension, and I had no problem at all with the references to sets, theorems, and the like. That’s because Cohen manages to communicate what it is like to have a passion for mathematics.
“Memoirs of a High-School Math-Brain,” from Closer to Dying, begins thus:
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“The Parabola,” I announced.
“She would choose that one,” whispered three regular teenagers in the back row.
Yes, alas, I would.
  .
The final stanza makes clear why:
 
Plenty of regular teenage girls got A’s in math.
But they didn’t prefer working on crossing polygons to going to a party.
And they didn’t write little squiggly geometry and algebra shapes in history class.
And they didn’t choose the parabola.
“Not as Much as Before,” one of the poems in Truth & Beauty is a response to students lamenting that they didn’t enjoy math in college as much as they had before college:
“… before college, I was like a kid in a candy store with math … The profundity of math could make me cry.
But in fact I didn’t really need the candy store … Candy was still candy even without the store and fifty years later I’m still a kid with candy. … Loving can come in spurts and it can come back ….
The poems in Truth & Beauty  are based on homework questions and classroom conversations that students and their teacher have shared. They are prose poems. Now, the prose poem has not had much success in English. Cohen’s work precisely because she does not go out of her way to make them “poetic.” The “prosy” parts of “Not as Much as Before” provide just the right context for that “loving can come in spurts” phrase.
While the profundity of math may make people like Cohen cry, it is life that brings heartbreak, and math is no help for that, as “Proof Theory” makes plain:
Like when my third baby died, and the students all know about that, I tried to prove that she couldn’t possibly have died, I said things like “But I ate so healthily”, “I already had two successful pregnancies”. Prove it, God, how did you do it, how could it POSSIBLY have been done?”
Heartbreak itself, though, never dies:
A grave once opened for me.
It was so big, so wide, an entire small house.
And she whom they were lowering was twenty inches
six pounds, fourteen ounces, small enough
To have fit inside me.
The dispassionate precision of these lines only makes the grief more palpable. In “Dreams about One Way in Which Life Goes On,” we learn that the child’s name was Kerin: “I have another baby named Kerin and she also dies. / I say I lost two babies named Kerin … / Another night I lost yet another baby named Kerin. … How many nights can I keep this up?”
And then there is growing old, which means growing “closer to dying,” while visited by insomnia, insinuating dreams, together with pain and memory. Here is “One Brand of Insomnia”:
By day I play Mozart and Bach on the piano.
I play pretty well. I sort of conquer them.
But by night they’re back.
By night they’re conquering me.
This suggests, rather startlingly, that the two conquerings work in synergy. Something akin animates “50-Year High School Reunion”:  “encountering my sixteen-year-old self. … I am hugging her, comforting her, advising her … Yes, I am advising her. And she is listening. She listened.”
Time to go shopping — or, more precisely, thrifting and that is what Cohen does in a good many of the poems in What I’m Wearing Today. Math tags along, of course. In “Math in the Thrift Store,” an “ethnic hand-embroidered top”  prompts interrogation:
What theorem are you? I ask it.
What is your proof?
What’s your Gödel number?
What’s your Gödel name?
But more than number resonates here. The speaker in “What I See in Thrift Stores” claims to seek space, time, “my past.” As in ”What I Wore in the 70s”:
I didn’t dress sexy.
I dressed arty.
I wasn’t a sex object.
I was an art object.
What it all adds up to is a fundamental mathematical truth: the terms on either side of an equal sign are just different ways of expressing the same thing. Cohen’s poems inevitably prove equal to their quotidian details. This is poetry not merely as a manner of speaking, but as an actual way of living.
Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog Books, Inq. — The Epilogue. Email him at PresterFrank@gmail.com.

An Interview with Frank Wilson

(click on title for full screen view)

 

g emil reutter

frank_wilson_bookpile.Poet Frank Wilson has been reviewing books for over fifty years. He began in college, worked for a weekly paper and as an editor for a book publisher. He served as Books Editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer, publishes Books Inq., a popular blog and wrote a weekly column for When Falls the Coliseum.

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Frank Wilson reads at Poets on the Porch Festival

Where is Frank Wilson from and how has that shaped your life?

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FW: I’m Philly-born and -bred. Strictly working class. My older brother and I were raised by our mother and her mother. Both of them were factory workers. My father was a cop. I didn’t see much of him when I was growing up, but I liked him a lot and learned a lot from him.

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I started life in North Philly, in a rowhouse at Sixth and Sedgley. St. Veronica’s parish. Across the street was a scrapyard, and all about were rail yards and factories. (The trains that I could see rushing by just behind the scrapyard were running on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s main line — just not the part that ran through the Main Line.) Nature in that neighborhood was what you found in vacant lots — ailanthus, blackberry brambles, and goldenrod. I still think there is a strange beauty in the glow of factories at night, and there is very nice watercolor right above where I am writing of sa factory scene at night.

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When I was 8, we moved to Torresdale, in the far Northeast, which at the time was still semi-rural. Our house was at the end of a gravel road (only recently named Jackson Street), and was surrounded by woods. There was a stream in back and we had well water and a cess pool. I walked through the woods to go to grade school (St. Katherine of Siena), which was then located on the grounds of Eden Hall, an exclusive girls school (Basil Rathbone’s daughter went there), which had its own farm. Nuns from Eden Hall — the Religious of the Sacred Heart, known as the distaff Jesuits — taught at the school. My sixth-grade teacher, Mother Holmes, was a niece of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. We exchanged emails near the end of her life. She was a very important influence on me.

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I grew very fond of those woods around our house — they were part of a migratory route, so all kinds of birds passed through in spring and fall — but when I was in the eighth grade the city came along and bull-dozed them into oblivion and put in sewer lines to set things up for development, which is why the Northeast I knew as a child doesn’t exist anymore

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Your blog,  Books, Inq.: The Epilogue,  is widely read. How did the Blog come about?

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FW: I started the blog at the beginning of 2005. The idea was that it would offer a behind-the-scenes look at what a newspaper book review editor does. It proved more difficult than I had anticipated — I really didn’t have the time to write thoughtful posts. It also didn’t attract many readers. So I changed course and turned it into a blog mostly linking to and commenting on articles about books and literature. I was also lucky in my partners. Vikram Johri has been posting from India since just about the beginning. For a while, the late Canadian poet Judith Fitzgerald was a partner. My other two partners now are Jesse Freedman, an Oxford grad who works for Amazon, and Julie Chovannes, an intellectual property lawyer. Now that I think about it, it’s a good thing I started it, because otherwise I don’t think I’d have made the cut.

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john timpane and frank wilson

John Timpane and Frank Wilson at Ryerss Museum and Library

You have been reviewing books for four decades, beginning in college, working for a press, a weekly paper and of course the Philadelphia Inquirer. Could you share what you consider the highlights of your career?

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FW: One of the books I edited for Lippincott — Stanley I. Kutler’s Privilege and Creative Destruction — has become a classic in its field. I would like to say that my superb editing had something to do with that, but it was the cleanest manuscript I ever worked on.

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Another book I edited, this one for Running Press, that I think is memorable was J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth by Daniel Grotta. It was an unauthorized biography. The Tolkien family had already chosen Humphey Carpenter to write the authorized version. Grotta advanced the notion that Tolkien’s imaginative world owed much to his experiences in World War I. Not everyone buys this, but I think the book makes a strong case for its plausibility.

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Then there was an article I wrote in the old Drummer about singer-songer Harry Nilsson that got me a funny thank-you note from Nilsson and the chance to talk to him over the phone a couple of times.

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Another review I wrote, of poet J. V. Cunningham’s Collected Poems and Collected Essays, got me a letter from Cunningham in which he told me that “it was nice to be praised for the things one would like to be praised for.” I wrote back and asked him if he would look at some of my poems, and he told me to send them along. At the time I was into writing things like villanelles and ballades. He wrote me back with some great advice. He told me that I had perfected a style. Now I just had to figure out what I wanted to do with it.

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Later on, when I was reviewing for The Inquirer, I got a letter from the novelist Oliver Lange. I had reviewed his novel Pas de Deux, which is about a novelist who writes under a pseudonym and teaches at a small college in Oregon and gets sucked into an affair with a student of his who turns out to be the daughter he more or less abandoned. I raised some questions in my review about how much of the story was autobiographical. Lange wrote to say he found the closeness of my reading impressive. He in fact did use a pseudonym — his real name was John Wadleigh — and he did teach in a small college, but he had not engaged in incest. That novel, by the way, ought to be better known, as should a couple of others of his: Next of Kin, which I also reviewed — it was nominated for a Pulitzer —  and Vandenburg, which Hollywood seems to have ripped off for the Patrick Swayze movie Red Dawn.

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Many newspapers are dropping book reviews from their publications. The Inquirer continues to publish many reviews. What is the decision process in selecting a book for review and what is your legacy at the Inquirer?

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FW: If a name writer has a new book out, it has to be reviewed. With non-fiction, you’ll want to review anything that is getting attention in the news. But the problem is space. The Inquirer probably reviews more poetry than most papers, and that is very good, because there are some pretty good poets in these parts, and a fairly lively poetry scene. I think The Inquirer would do itself and its readers a big favor by putting out an actual book section. The Inquirer’s competition on Sunday is the New York Times. Now, the Times’s book review section is a shadow of its former self (no sour grapes on my part in saying this — I wrote for the Times book review for years), but they do still have one. The Inquirer could easily and cheaply put out one that would be competitive. The Inquirer’s Sunday sales would likely go up, and I suspect the Times’s might well go down.

As for my legacy, probably a headline I wrote when I was a copy editor for a review of a book about the German philosopher Martin Heidegger: Dasein for living (which only makes sense to somebody who knows something about Heidegger). And a quip I made about Bill Clinton being a Snopes with table manners.

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frank drexel

Frank Wilson interviewed at Drexel Television

Your wrote a weekly column, That’s What He Said, for When Falls the Coliseum. How did this come about and are you considering bringing the column back and if not why?

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FW: It came about because Scott Stein, the editor of WFTC, asked me if I wanted to write a column. I had always thought about writing some essays like the first ones Montaigne wrote — descants on favorite quotations. I stopped writing it because I ran out of quotations that had been floating around in my head and had to start looking around for quotations, which struck me as phony. Recently, though, I realized that I look around for quotations every day for the “Something to think on…” feature on the blog, so I see ideas for it every day practically. So I am planning to take it up again fairly soon.

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As a poet, could you share what motivates you to write poetry and what type of poet do you consider yourself?

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FW:  I think I caught the poetry bug when I was very small and was reading nursery rhymes. “Hey Diddle Diddle” has been a lifelong favorite. Moving from sound and nonsense to sound and sense was easy. In the grade school I attended, poetry was taught every Friday afternoon. Sometimes you had to memorize it. That’s when I first encountered Poe’s “To Helen,” which happens to be a well-nigh perfect lyric, and “The Raven,” and Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners.” I remember one Saturday night — I was in my early teens, I think —reading all of Poe’s poems in one sitting. The next morning, when my mother and I walked to Mass, one of them, “Romance,” kept running through my head the way a popular song might. So the connection between sound and sense was what got me started, I think.

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I remember writing a poem and showing it to my Junior English teacher at Father Judge. He handed it back to me the next day decorated with scanning marks, demonstrating that I knew nothing about metrics. Which I began to learn. Emerson got me studying etymologies and I started discovering poets on my own. I can still remember the day I came upon H.D.’s “Pear Tree” in an anthology I had picked up in the Holmesburg Library. I remember thinking that H.D., whoever she was, was the kind of girl I’d like to know. From the start I was fond of poets who were women. Those Friday afternoon poetry classes had already introduced me to Amy Lowell and Sara Teasdale, and I came to love Denise Levertov and Phylis McGinley. Levertov, in particular, along with H.D., I am sure exerted considerable influence on my poetic personality.
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I remember picking up a copy of T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems 1909-1935 in Leary’s Book Store on a rainy November Saturday and reading “Preludes” on the el. I think that’s when I realized how poetic the city could be, that poems didn’t need daffodils. But, speaking of daffodils, it was having an experience a lot like what Wordsworth tells of in “Tintern Abbey” that was decisive in making me feel that poetry could be a kind of vocation. One Sunday in May I walked through Pennypack Park from Frankford Avenue to Pine Road and back. By myself. On the way back — I was on the high trail — I stopped and looked across to the other side of the creek. It was late afternoon, and I felt, like Wordsworth, a presence and
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                                           …a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
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I wrote some poetry in college and some of it appeared in the college literary magazine, and I know I continued writing it from time to time. But mostly I read, and discovered poets I felt simpatico with — Kenneth Patchen, another working-class kid, George Barker, John Hall Wheelock, Robert Bly (whom I got to meet). I made myself familiar with those thought standard as well: Cummings, Auden, William Carlos Williams, and especially Stevens. I guess I should mention Rilke, too. I studied German in high school and college and have made good use of it in reading Rilke, whose poems have meant a lot to me. I was also increasingly absorbed with words, their origins and connotations, how they fitted with one another, how the right arrangement could be a cluster of meanings in mysterious harmony. Meter is really good for scanning. It lets you gauge the melody and rhythm of words in consort. But meter alone is not poetry. Poetry happens when meter and inflection accommodate each other.
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Things started to coalesce in the ‘70s and I was invited to read at Haverford College, and some of my things got set to music (one for a piece in honor of the Bicentennial). I didn’t start getting into print until much later. The business of poetry didn’t interest me all that much, though I was neither ignorant of it nor indifferent to it. But poetry for me had become, as I think it was for Wallace Stevens, a private devotion. Like Stevens, I had a day job. The practice of poetry was a place of sanctuary for me, where the essential strands of my being — my faith, my fondness for long walks (in the woods or in the city or along the beach),  certain paintings and pieces of music, the philosophical and theological musings I had been trained in, all came together in an attempt to arrive at something like a language crystal. I hear some words, some lines, and try to discern their meaning and order and get them down as accurately and precisely as I can. 

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Frank Wilson reading at Poets on the Porch Festival

Poets on the Porch Festival

Will we see a collection of poetry from Frank Wilson?

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FW:  A year or so ago, my friend Daniel Grotta, who wrote the Tolkien biography I mentioned, asked me if I would let him publish my poems. What was interesting about that was Daniel only knew my poems from having heard me read them decades earlier in my Germantown sitting room. That’s the best compliment I have ever had. Daniel and his wife, Sally, ran a publishing house out of the Poconos. Unfortunately, Daniel passed away last year, and I don’t feel I should bother Sally about it. But I am going to put together a collection of them and show it to some friends and see what they think.  We’ll see what happens.

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As a younger man it is said that you enjoyed to party. How did this impact your writing and do you miss that life?

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FW: The partying had no effect on my writing beyond maybe sometimes giving me experiences and insights I might otherwise not have had. No one in his right mind undertakes to write while high. Some of the partying was also pretty high-toned. Among the people who came to visit my rather bohemian house in Germantown years ago were people like Roy Tobias, who was one of the original members of the American Ballet Theater, and a guy named Evans Winner, who was involved in the founding of Outward Bound, and painter Harry Bertoia. I’m an old-fashioned journalist. I like to experience things first-hand, not just hear about them. But you can keep that sort of thing up for only so long and the name of the game is not to be dead at the end. I did everything in the partying line that I could do and moved on. I do not miss it at all. I can’t remember the last party I attended. Been there, done that.

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frank-wilson

If possible, could you share your favorite top ten books?

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FW: Off the top of my head, in no particular order, and without comment:

Le grand Meulnes (also known as The Wanderer), by Alain-Fournier.

Owen Glendower, by John Cowper Powys

Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse

Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh

Earthly Powers, by Anthony Burgess 

Possession, by A.S. Byatt

The Song of Bernadette, by Franz Werfel

The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, by Albert Jay Nock

The Destiny of Man, by Nicolas Berdyaev

The Living God, by Romano Guardini

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Where do you see the publication of books heading and in particular, poetry books, which struggle to find a place in the market?

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FW: If newspapers were smart, they’d cover poetry the way they cover movies and the theater and concerts. The newspaper mantra these days is local, local, local. Well, in just about any locale you can find people interested in poetry, writing it and reading it. Poetry certainly isn’t going away anytime soon, especially given the way technology has made it possible for just about anybody to draw attention to what he writes. It is strange how the media doesn’t really seem to catch on to how things have changed, even though the media itself has been profoundly affected by the changes. But the media seems hellbent on continuing to look at things as if they still were as they used to be. There is a market for books in general and poetry in particular. Somebody is going to figure out how to exploit that market.

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chimera frank

How would you describe Frank Wilson?

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FW: God has been good to me. I ended up with the job I had dreamed of having when I was in high school. I’ve spent most of my life doing things I really liked doing. And I made a pretty good living doing it. Deeper than that, I find, now that I am an old man, that it was the early years, childhood and adolescence, that made me who I am. The years in between seem like variations on a theme I think I hit upon when I was 15. Oddly, it is the practice of poetry that has made me understand this. I studied existential phenomenology under Edward Gannon, S. J., and his counsel has guided me ever since. Along with the poetry, it has made me an engaged observer of life and the world. 

 

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To learn more about Frank Wilson these sites are recommended:

Chimeraobscura – http://chimeraobscura.com/vm/podcast-critical-mass

The Drexel Interview – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GXcOfqRnKU

Frank Wilson interviews Donald Hall- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6knD_RrfdiU

Gypsy Art Show- http://poddirectory.com/episode/46723/gypsy-art-show-with-poet-and-reviewer-frank-wilson

Kenyon Review- http://www.kenyonreview.org/2006/12/an-interview-with-frank-wilson-part-ii/

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g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. You can find him here: About g emil reutter

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Photographs courtesy of Books Inq, Chimeraobscura, The Philadelphia Inqurier , The Fox Chase Review, When Falls the Coliseum, The Drexel Interview

 

 

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