The poetry bestseller

At first glance the phrase ‘best-selling poetry book’ looks oxymoronic. Anyone with a vague sense of book publishing is acquainted with the orthodoxy that poetry doesn’t sell: readers don’t want to read it. Commercial publishers have used this pearl to justify curtailing or, more dramatically, cancelling their poetry lists. Booksellers have relied on it as a way of explaining away – to the few who might enquire – their thin and often uninspired poetry stock. And who can blame them? Publishers and booksellers are not in the business of charity. The poetry book, without a benefactor, is fading from popular culture. Or is it?

Khalil GibranAt first glance the phrase ‘best-selling poetry book’ looks oxymoronic. Anyone with a vague sense of book publishing is acquainted with the orthodoxy that poetry doesn’t sell: readers don’t want to read it. Commercial publishers have used this pearl to justify curtailing or, more dramatically, cancelling their poetry lists. Booksellers have relied on it as a way of explaining away – to the few who might enquire – their thin and often uninspired poetry stock. And who can blame them? Publishers and booksellers are not in the business of charity. The poetry book, without a benefactor, is fading from popular culture. Or is it?

Certainly if one looks at the life of a contemporary book of poems it would appear so. Poetry publishing in Australia (and indeed in most Western countries) has been relegated in the main to boutique presses and self-publishing outfits that run on the good will and thankless efforts of poetry enthusiasts. Outfits that stay afloat often do not have sufficient access to resources, distribution and marketing to have their books noticed by readers. Their books are inadequately reviewed or not reviewed at all. Those that do find a buyer do so mostly at poetry readings to fellow poets – thereby flying under the radar of Neilsen BookScan which makes official sales look even worse. Under these conditions the thus-far unchallenged maxim that ‘poetry doesn’t sell’ becomes self-fulfilling prophesy.

But all this bellyaching conceals an interesting fact: some poetry books actually do sell. Some sell very well indeed. Some poetry books are even bestsellers.

It’s widely agreed that Australia’s best bet for a second Nobel Laureate in Literature is not a novelist but, astonishing to some, a poet: Les Murray. Murray’s books, critically acclaimed at home and overseas, have garnered a plethora of prestigious awards, including Britain’s coveted TS Eliot Poetry Prize. His publicity frequently affirms him as one of the best poets writing in English today, and Murray is regularly grouped with a trinity of recent Laureate poets: Ireland’s Seamus Heaney, Russian–American Joseph Brodsky, and the Caribbean’s Derek Walcott. With domestic sales buoyed by his international sales (in English and in translation), Murray’s reputation as a poetry heavy–hitter translates into healthy book sales by the standards of contemporary poetry. Nevertheless, and relevant to this conversation, even Murray has been left on several occasions in his career without a publisher due to the aforementioned vagaries of the sector. But more on Murray later.

Poetry readership in Australia looks comparatively good when figures are adjusted for population. As Murray has pointed out, poetry in Australia enjoys a much larger readership in proportion to population than in most Western countries. Whereas a typical US poetry title runs to about 1500 copies, a poetry title by a reasonably well-known poet in Australia (at about one-fifteenth of the US population) runs to about half the US number.

But not all Australian poets enjoying relatively healthy sales have a profile to match Murray’s. In fact some lesser–known poets might sell even more copies of their books. Poets lucky enough to have their books set on high school English curricula can often compete with sales figures of fiction authors. One poet in this enviable position, Peter Skrzynecki, whose book Immigrant Chronicle has remained in print for 30 years. Another favourite on the HSC curricula, Bruce Dawe, is – at least according to his Sometimes Gladness book jacket – Australia’s bestselling living poet. While sales figures have yet to be verified in a full-scale study, it is fair to say that Dawe and Skrzynecki, and a handful of others, have bypassed the imperative of the marketplace and been turned into poetry bestsellers by the education sector.

But it is still difficult to find these books in bookshops. And it is difficult to mount the case that these books, their success aside, have entered the realm of popular culture. So which poetry books, if any, have?

To answer this question, it is necessary to cast one’s vision temporarily beyond the realm of Australian poets and, further, beyond the realm of the living. Immediately Shakespeare struts upon the stage. And in fact Shakespeare, we are told, is the best-selling poet in English of all time. The author of – at least as we are able to count his works today – 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems and a handful of others, Shakespeare has been generating sales in a proliferation of editions for the past 400 years.

But what about poetry sales not mounted over time, but poetry titles that sell well in a given year? Well, things get interesting.

Figures out of the United Sates – a significant market for literature in English – do not rank Shakespeare as number one on their bestseller list for poetry. The best-selling poet in America today is not only dead but he – let gender be no surprise – also did not write in English. He’s not an American. Some might even say he is un-American.

The prize for best-selling poet in America goes to a poet in translation: Jalal al-Din Molavi Rumi. A Sufi poet known to Iranians as Mawlana. Or, to Westerners, simply as Rumi.

Rumi was born in Balkh, which is now in Afghanistan, in 1207 on the shores of the Persian Empire, but he lived most of his life in the town of Konya, in what is now Turkey. Rumi’s major work is a six-volume poem, Masnavi-ye Manavi (Spiritual Couplets), regarded by some Sufis as the Persian-language Qur’an. The general theme of Rumi’s thought, like that of other mystic and Sufi poets of Persian literature, is essentially the concept of tawhid – union with his beloved – and his longing and desire to restore it. He writes:

There’s a strange frenzy in my head,
of birds flying,
each particle circulating on its own.
Is the one I love everywhere?

Rumi sought god everywhere and in everybody. He encouraged others to experience the ecstatic union: “It doesn’t matter that you’ve broken your vow / a thousand times. Still come, / and yet again, come”.

Rumi’s voice still resonates. It touches, if we are to judge by sales, the contemporary reader with the same fervour as it did 700 ago. It touches celebrities too: Madonna set his poems to music on Deepak Chopra’s 1998 CD, A Gift of Love. Donna Karan has used recitations of his poetry as a background to her fashion shows; Philip Glass has written an opera – Monsters of Grace – around his poems; and Oliver Stone apparently wants to make a film of his life.

American poet Coleman Barks, perhaps more than anyone, is responsible for bringing Rumi’s poetry to the English-speaking masses. Barks is not a scholar – and he doesn’t speak a word of Persian. But this didn’t stop his book, The Essential Rumi (HarperCollins 1995), from being the most successful poetry book published in the West in recent years. Coleman has come out with a new book of Rumi translations every September for the past decade.

Even the 9/11 attacks didn’t subdue the public’s interest in mystical Islamic verse: Coleman’s The Soul of Rumi, released days after the Trade Centre bombings, went on to become a bestseller. Barks himself seems surprised by sales of his Rumi translations. In the preface to his 2003 book, Rumi: The Book of Love, he confesses:

I have sold too many books. I once calculated that Rumi books sell at least a hundred a day right through weekends and holidays, while my own writing goes at about twelve copies a month, worldwide. In other words, Rumi’s work sells at about 365,000 copies a year; Barks sells 144. Those numbers keep me humble.

Rumi is popular not only in America but also in Australia. Nevertheless his book sales – Barks’s translations as well as other scholarly editions – fall short of granting him primacy. Neilsen BookScan, which records book sales in Australia since 2002, reveals two poets neck and neck: the Greek poet Homer (which is not his name, scholars tell us, but the name he goes by), author of The Odyssey and The Iliad; and twentieth-century Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran, whose book The Prophet made him a household name.

Homer’s epic poems – second in antiquity only to (what-is-now) Iraq’s Gilgamesh – are about war, gods and mortality. Although a steady favourite on education lists, Homer enjoyed a surge of popularity when The Iliad was morphed in a 2004 film called Troy starring Brad Pitt.

But Gibran, who writes on ‘spiritual’ themes, is never studied in institutions. And yet he is considered the third-best selling poet in history after Shakespeare and sixth-century BC Chinese poet, Lao Tzu. In Australia – adding his book sales across all edition of The Prophet – Gibran is the clear favourite.

Born in 1883 in Bsharii in modern-day northern Lebanon, Gibran died of liver failure at the age of 48 in New York. The Prophet, his first book, was published in 1923, and incredibly it sold over 1000 copies in three months. Its fame spread by word of mouth. By 1931 it had been translated into 20 languages. By the 60s it was a favourite with American youth culture. It’s been popular ever since.

The fictional set up for The Prophet parallels the legendary story of Lao Tzu’s writing of the Lao Tzu’s writing of the Tao Te Ching (on his way to Tibet he is stopped by a border guard and made to record his teachings before leaving). In Gibran’s book, however, the prophet Almustafa has lived for 12 years in the foreign city of Orphalese and is heading home when a group of people stop him and he offers to share his wisdom on an array of issues pertaining to life and the human condition: love, marriage, children, giving, eating and drinking, work, joy and sorrow, houses, crime and punishment, reason and passion, self-knowledge, beauty, death and so on. The chapter on marriage is perhaps the best known, as it’s a regular in wedding ceremonies. A testament to love (and an argument against codependence), it concludes:

Give your hearts but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

Gibran might be one of the best-selling poets in Australia over the past five years, but what is the best-selling individual poetry title during this time?

The prize goes to Desiderata: A Survival Guide for Life (Random House 2002) which houses the inspirational prose poem, ‘Desiderata’, offering instruction for attaining happiness in life. The title in Latin for ‘desired things’ or ‘things that are yearned for’, but in the context of the poem ‘essential things’ is a more accurate translation. It opens with the following advice:

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.

The poem ends with the directive: ‘Strive to be happy’.

As with the ubiquitous ‘Footprints in the Sand’ poem, whose authorship and copyright holding remains hotly contested (no fewer than four authors claim to have written it), questions of authorship have beset ‘Desiderata’. The poem was first copyrighted in 1927 by Max Ehrmann, a lawyer from Indianna, inspired by an urge that he described in his diary: ‘I should like, if I could, to leave a humble gift – a bit of chaste prose that had caught up some noble moods’.

But in the 1960s ‘Desiderata’ was widely circulated without attribution to Ehrmann. In face, a myth arose that the poem was written in 1692 by an unknown author. The slip came about when Reverend Frederick Kates reproduced the Desiderata poem for his congregation in 1959 on church letterhead which read: The Old St Paul’s Church, Baltimore, AD 1692. It was only a matter of time before a publisher interpreted this notation as meaning that the poem itself was found in Old St Paul’s Church, and that it had been written in 1692, and therefore took the poem to be in the public domain.

It was an unhappy error. Worse, law suits ensued. One court case held that the poem was forfeited to the public domain because Ehrmann had freely distributed it on Christmas cards to soldiers during WWII. But other cases have ruled that Crescendo Publishing Company – who bought the poem for an undisclosed amount in 1975 from Ehrmann’s heirs – holds copyright. It seems that the course cannot agree on the issue. There is no doubt, however, that the mistake in authorship added to the charm and historic appeal of the poem (despite the fact that the actual language in the poem suggests a more modern origin). It gives ‘Desiderata’ the aura of exoticism it might otherwise lack as a contemporary poem in English by an unheard of author.

So why are these particular poets popular with the reading public? It is surely not a matter of quality. Of the three poets discussed at length – Rumi, Gibran and Ehrmann – only Rumi is regarded as an important poet.

In his book, The History of Iran: Empires of the Mind, Michael Axworthy argues that the public’s choice of poet depends not so much on the merits or true nature of the poets or their poetry, but more on their capacity to be interpreted in accordance with passing Western literary and cultural fashions:

So [Persian poet] Hafez was interpreted to fit with the mood of Romanticism, Omar Khyyam with the Aesthetic movement, and it has been Rumi’s misfortune to be befriended by numb-brained New Agery.

It is true we live in an age where where spirituality-lite is a hot commodity in the marketplace. Rumi himself is not ‘lite’ – he was a devoted Muslim and a respected theologian – but Barks’s bestselling translations have bowdlerised almost every reference to Islam from his poems. Barks’s translations are Rumi-lite.

But the popularity of these poets might have something to do with their ‘spiritual themes’ more generally. Throughout history, the human relationship with the divine has often been described in verse.  Indeed, much of the literature of antiquity, when not merely factual or legislative, is poetic and sapiential:  the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Indian Vedas, the Old Testament, and the Qu’ran among others.

While much mystical poetry has been written in earlier epochs, a good number of contemporary poets continue the tradition. Murray – who has dedicated his poetry books since the 1980s to ‘the glory of god’ – upholds the need for belief:

Most people would agree, perhaps after some dispute about terminology, that something like a religious dimension exists in every human being. Some might want to call it a dimension of wonder, of quest, of value, of ultimate significance or the like. Some have denied its reality altogether, but I think the weight of human experience and…of perceived human behaviours is against them.

Although he describes himself as a poet who is religious (not a religious poet), Murray’s poems are increasingly infused with this dimension of religion, of wonder, regardless of denomination. In fart he has expressed a desire ‘to celebrate something, without giving it away. It may be a paradox, but I dream of someday reading, or writing, a richly secretive work’.

Poetry in the mystic tradition tends to be centred on paradox (an idea related to the word oxymoron that opened this essay). Empedocles (BC 495–435) writes: ‘God is a circle whose centre is everywhere, and its circumference nowhere’; Meister Eckhardt (1260–1327) writes: ‘The more God is in all things, the more He is outside them’. And Murray: ‘The more I act, the stiller I become; the less I’m lit, the more spellbound my crowd’.

As Western culture has become increasingly secularised and a widespread suspicion of organised religion pervades, it seems many readers have turned to the mystical poem as a vehicle for contemplation, meditation, and to negotiate their relationship with what we might call divinity. In fact, the strong times between poetry and mysticism, or religion more broadly, has led to the argument that poetry can be a substitute for religion in secular culture.

American poet Denise Levertov takes this idea a step further: ‘the poet – when writing – is a priest; the poem is a temple; epiphanies and communion take place within it’. And indeed, on of the few unquestioned roles of the poem is its priestly function at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Certainly this function is on bright display in the poems of Rumi, Gibran, and Ehrman and their sales can be taken as endorsement for its need. But thinking about bestselling poetry, there’s one more quality worth mentioning.

Laughter. In terms of sales for an individual poetry title, the second ranked poetry title in Australia is Michael Leunig’s Poems (Viking 2004). Which goes to show that while Australian readers like thinking about god, they have retained a sense of humour.

The Conversation

An abbreviated version of this article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The cambridge companion to creative writing: so much depends upon the line

Extract from chapter in Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing

“The line,” as James Logenbach contends, “is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry”. Whenever we see, or more importantly hear, language arranged in lines we know we are entering the gallery of the poem. White space and silence frame the poem and alert us to its language. Consider the difference between William Carlos William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” set as prose – “so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens” – and the same words set in lines.

Cambridge_University_Press“The line,” as James Longenbach contends, “is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry”. Whenever we see, or more importantly hear, language arranged in lines we know we are entering the gallery of the poem. White space and silence frame the poem and alert us to its language. Consider the difference between William Carlos William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” set as prose – “so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens” – and the same words set in lines:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

 glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

As prose, the sentence moves swiftly so that its essential meaning can be easily grasped. But set in lines, language slows down: each word in the poem is clarified, intensified, and raised in stature. The words are experienced not only as signifiers but as objects in themselves. At a reduced pace meaning opens up and multiplies. The portmanteau “wheelbarrow”, for instance, is cleaved so that we are encouraged to contemplate the word “barrow”, which can refer to not only a cart but also, perhaps, to a burial mound. This is not to argue that “burial mound” is the preferred reading in this particular poem, but rather to show how a word, when isolated, can be unmoored from its strict context so that its alternative meanings might come into play.

In prose, a sentence has a single beginning and an end, but set in lines beginnings and endings are abundant. Each line in a poem refracts into additional beginnings and endings inside the sentence, which grants not only heightened significance through emphasis – the start and end of a line are always hotspots – but lines also offers a sense of equivalence in which words and phrases can be weighed, or balanced, against other words and phrases. Michael Dransfield’s “Pas de deaux for Lovers” offers an excellent example. The poem opens with a statement that “Morning ought not/to be complex” but the sun, the poet observes, has been “cast at dawn into the long/furrow of history”. The poet appears to be weighing this ideal of detachment against a dawning attachment to a lover:

To wake
and go
would be so simple.

Yet

how the
first light
makes gold her hair

We can imagine the poet looking down as he completes the image in the next stanza: “upon my arm.” The poem spins on the word “yet” which stands in isolation at the heart of the poem as a single-word line (and stanza). An otherwise small and almost insignificant word, “yet” is granted primacy of placement and as such it demands to be taken as central to the poem’s meaning. It punches above its weight and undoes both the argument and the poet, who is helpless against his growing emotion for his lover: “Day,” he concludes, “is so deep already with involvement.”

the end of the line

Determining where a line ends – or breaks – is the art of the poet. “There is at our disposal,” as Denise Levertov argues, “no tool of the poetic craft more important, none that yield more subtle and precise effects, than the line break if it is properly understood”. Essentially there are two types of line breaks: “end-stopped” in which the line ends with a clear and natural pause created by punctuation; and “enjambed” in which the phrase, clause, or sentence continues across a line-break to decrease the pause and speed up the rhythm and flow of the thought.

As we’ve seen, the interplay between the line and the sentence creates a dynamic unique to poetry. Sometimes, in the case of end-stopped lines, the line and the sentence correspond exactly, as in the opening lines of “Under One Small Star” by Wislawa Szymborska:

My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.
My apologies to necessity if I’m mistaken, after all.
Please, don’t be angry, happiness, that I take you as my due.
May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade.

The structure of the line is simple and clearly marked out for the ear by punctuation. The directness of the line accords a sense of formality to the poem that proceeds as a list of transgressions so human we would absolve the poet immediately, if we could. Szymborska achieves audible interest, however, in the middle of the poem and again at the end, as seen here, by extending the sentence beyond a single line:

Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,
then labour heavily so that they may seem light.

Here, the end-stopped lines maintain balance and form, but the smaller pause of a comma contrasts with the longer pause (and breath) signalled by the full-stop to achieve a graceful fluency and increased flow.

But more commonly in contemporary poems – and as seen in the Williams and Dransfield poems above – a poet will aim for a more dramatic line-break by using enjambment. In Sharon Olds’s heavily enjambed poem, “I Go Back to May 1937”, the poet imagines her parents “standing at the formal gates of their colleges” in the late May sunlight:

I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips black in the May air …

Olds’s trademark narrative energy moves not just horizontally with the line but plunges down the page, her lines breaking on prepositions, articles, adjectives, and pronouns, forcing the reader to leap ahead, dizzily, for the noun or the verb. Sometimes the ride through an Olds poem is so violent it feels as if the poet has taken a pen in her fist and torn it down the page. Such heavily enjambed lines invigorate with their wilful incursion into the sentence, even if their liveliness comes at the cost of being harder for the ear to hear the structure.

Enjambment offers the additional quality of allowing the poet to spin meaning on its head. Working in a highly condensed form, poets often celebrate the possibility of generating multiple meanings from a single statement. In Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas”, for example, the poet offers the idea that desire is full, amplified, but this meaning holds only for a moment before it is shattered in the next line:

Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.

When the syntax resolves we discover that we haven’t so much misread the first line but that the bittersweet enjambment has allowed two separate meanings to run concurrently.

the length of the line

Short lines, as seen in the Williams and Dransfield poems above, frequently can be found in contemporary free verse, where the poet determines line length based on a desire for equivalence, hesitation, emphasis, and other strategic effects. But sometimes a poet wants a more fulsome line: lines we can carry around in our bodies in the hope that we may summon them at a later date for the wisdom, consolation, wittiness, or joy they offer. Shakespeare’s “To be, or not to be: that is the question”, for instance; Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant – “; or Elizabeth Bishop’s “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”.

The success of these lines, and countless others, may have something to do with the way we think. In their article, “The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time”, Frederick Turner and Ernst Pöppel make a case for a remarkable congruency between poetry and the human nervous system. After examining a sample of metrical poetry from about eighty different cultures – from Africa to North and South America, Asia, and Oceania – they found a predominance of lines that take on average about three second to articulate. For Turner and Pöppel, this is no accident: a “the three-second period,” they argue, “roughly speaking, is the length of the human present moment”. In English a line of iambic pentameter corresponds most consistently – though not exclusively – with the three-second duration of our experience of the present moment. Which may account for tremendous popularity the ten-syllable line has had with poets through the ages.

Poets have used other parts of the body – the lungs in particular – to determine the length of their lines. Walt Whitman famously took his line to the end the human breath, which in turn inspired Allen Ginsberg to conduct his own experiments with the line as a unit of breath. Each line in “Howl”, for example, is designed be read in one breath:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical
naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix …

Ginsberg’s line pulls the reader to its natural end. The lines are ecstatic to read, especially aloud, as the poet, like a puppeteer, pulls the strings on the reader’s body. Similarly, in his seminal essay, “Projective Verse”, Charles Olson formalised the idea of a “breath-line” – in so doing, he hoped to connect the poem again to the human body.

This extract is from a chapter, “Poetry and Poetics”, by Bronwyn Lea in Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing. Ed. David Morely and Philip Neilsen. Cambridge UP, 2012: 67-86.

Robert hass: blackberries for a black hat dancer

First published in Blue Dog: Australian Poetry

“Meditation at Lagunitas” rides, as Robert Frost says a poem must, on its own melting: “like a piece of ice on a hot stove”. It is perhaps my favourite poem. But writing about favourite poems — as Robert Hass himself notes in his collection of essays, Twentieth Century Pleasures — “is probably a hopeless matter.” You can analyze the music of the poem, he writes, “but it’s difficult to conduct an argument about its value, especially when it’s gotten into the blood. It becomes autobiography there”. I first read “Lagunitas” in 1991 — almost twenty years after Hass first published it — and there was so little in it of what I see now, that it amazes me to remember what it was I originally saw.

robert hassOnly Connect – EM Forster

“Meditation at Lagunitas” rides, as Robert Frost says a poem must, on its own melting: “like a piece of ice on a hot stove”. It is perhaps my favourite poem. But writing about favourite poems — as Robert Hass himself notes in his collection of essays, Twentieth Century Pleasures — “is probably a hopeless matter.” You can analyze the music of the poem, he writes, “but it’s difficult to conduct an argument about its value, especially when it’s gotten into the blood. It becomes autobiography there”.

I first read “Lagunitas” in 1991 — almost twenty years after Hass first published it — and there was so little in it of what I see now, that it amazes me to remember what it was I originally saw. It was the time of the Gulf War, and I was living at the edge of Oceanside, one of California’s largest military towns. Determined to “not let this be another Vietnam,” baby-boomers declared their support for their boys abroad by flying U.S. flags, rescued from the tangle of Christmas lights in their attics, in the skies above their manicured lawns. My neighbours even went so far as to attach plastic “stars and stripes” to the antennas of their Mazda minivans and Volvo stationwagons. One afternoon, I remember, after Bush had issued one of his ultimatums to “Sadim,” as he deliberately “misspoke,” two hundred students from UCSD laid their collective body across five lanes of California highway and stopped traffic for about two hours. Local reporters, overnight celebrities, largely ignored the incident and talked instead of “peacekeeping,” “humanitarian intervention” and “friendly fire.” Operation “Desert Storm” rivaled “The Cold War” for its poetry: from CNN, not Derrida, I learned that language is slick, and meaning is without a centre.

“Lagunitas” is a meditation not on loss but the idea of loss. With its majestic opening, “all the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking”, Hass locates the reader in the realm of abstractions where the “luminous clarity of the general idea” is privileged over “each particular”. The idea, for example:

That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light.

Or the notion that, “because there is in this world no one thing / to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds, / a word is elegy to what it signifies”. Hass has never shied away from the language of theoretical discourse. In fact, as Don Bogen notes, “he finds a rarefied music in the polysyllabic abstractions, long clauses and parallel constructions of his argument”. Language here is reduced to its barest essentials, to strings of spondaic feet — “trunk / of that black birch is” or “there is in this world no one thing / to which” — that hit the air like a philosopher’s finger. Deprived of traditional harmonic concepts, Hass’ prosody, in these cases, is absent a feeling of key. Still, I find a dark, almost brooding, beauty to the lines, like the beauty I have found in Nietzsche after reading Foucault.

But “talking this way”, Hass understands, after a while dissolves everything: “justice, / pine, hair, woman, you and I ”, an understanding that is at once a lament for the dissolution of language and a critique of “all the new thinking.” So to fill the resultant void — or test these philosophical axioms along his pulses — Hass recalls a woman he made love to, and remembers how, holding her small shoulders in his hands sometimes, he “felt a violent wonder at her presence / like a thirst for salt”. And it is this violent wonder, Hass’ meditation on presence, which yields the poem’s loveliest lines, complete with bittersweet enjambment: “Longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances”.

Ironically, it is with the dissolution of language and the commencement of memory, that Hass finds his stride in his heartbeat, and the iambic meter begins: “But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread, / the thing her father said that hurt her, what / she dreamed”. It is not the hands that break the bread as much as the sounds of the words. The surprise of dismantled — a word associated more with regimes and contraptions than with hands and bread — an ugly duckling turned swan by its iambic necessity: the more expected broke would have disrupted the metre, thereby emphasising the bread and not the act. And, in the next line — perfect iambic pentameter — the stresses land cleanly on the thing her father said and what she dreamed, emphasising that it is particulars which create meaning not erase them.

It is the absolute humanity of these lines that moves, and sometimes crushes, me. Hass’ voice resounds with devotion to remembrance, as if his memory of the woman — his true companion in the etymological sense of the word, the one he eats bread with — might save him The scene is erotically charged and yet, evocative of holy communion, it glows with an aura of religiosity. But one need not be religious — and I am not — to appreciate the astounding beauty of Hass’ ultimate realisation: “there are moments when the body is as numinous / as words, days that are the good flesh continuing”.

Perhaps this is why, after reading Jacques Lacan in 1994, I felt — upon rereading “Lagunitas” — as if I were standing in my bedroom and seeing that I was without a floor. “Lagunitas,” I saw, was not simply a meditation on the idea of loss, but an actual working model of Lacan’s theory of the unconscious. Suddenly, Hass’ “clown-faced woodpecker” became an instance of mere lack (manque); his bramble of blackberry, without a corresponding signified, indicated need (besoin); and his beloved, simply the conscious object of his desire (désir).

Without exception, “Lagunitas” models every stage of Lacan’s theory: the Mirror-Stage, where the child experiences itself as le Désire de la Mère is “a first world / of undivided light”; the psychic field of the Imaginary, where reality is grasped purely as images and fantasies for the fulfillment of desire, is Hass’ thirst “for his childhood river / with its island willows, [and] silly music from the pleasure boat”; the field of the Symbolic, where repression and the unconscious begins as the child learns the names of things, is the “muddy places where we caught little orange-silver fish called pumpkinseed”; the Name-of-the-Father (le Nom-du-Pére which, in French, is pronounced like the No-of-the-Father), where desired objects are replaced by metaphor and metonymy is, of course, “the thing her father said that hurt her”; and finally, the field of the Real, which seems to mean those incomprehensible aspects of experience that exist beyond the grasp of images and symbols through which we think and constitute reality, is Hass’ “moments when the body is numinous as words”.

But this exegesis, brief as it is, is not my hamfisted attempt to fit “Lagunitas” into Lacan’s theory of the unconscious. Rather it is a reading which Hass himself not only courts but has carefully constructed. First, the scene is set with “all the new thinking…about loss” — Derrida and Althusser perhaps — resembling the old — Lacan and Freud among others. And second, “Lagunitas” is strewn with synonyms of post-structuralist deconstruction: erase, divide, dissolve and dismantle. As evidence that Hass was conscious of his word choice in this way — twenty-five years later — Hass uses “dismantle” again in “Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer”:

This was a time when,
in the universities, everyone was reading Derrida.
Who’d set out to write a dissertation about time;
he read Heidegger, Husserl, Kant, Augustine, and found
that there was no place to stand from which to talk about it.
There was no ground. It was language. The scandal
of nothingness! Put cheerfully to work by my colleagues
to dismantle regnant ideologies.

This tactic of literary referencing is one of Hass’ most extended poetic tropes; everywhere his poems describe their sources and discuss what they do or do not or cannot mean. One of my favourite examples of this trope occurs in Praise — nineteen poems after “Lagunitas” — with a poem I had largely ignored for years, “Picking Blackberries with a Friend Who Has Been Reading Jacques Lacan.” In it, Hass recasts the conversation in “Lagunitas” and has “stopped talking about L’Histoire de la vérité, /about subject and object / and the mediation of desire”. He has blocked his ears,

And Charlie,
laughing wonderfully,
beard stained purple
by the word juice,
goes to get another pot.

I love the humour in this resolution. But what brings “a thin wire of grief to my voice, / a tone almost querulous”, is the idea that “Lagunitas” is not, as I had originally imagined it to be, “the repository of a unique history which makes each of us an irreplaceable being”. Rather, it is like Levi Straus’ unconscious: “reducible to a function, the symbolic function” which, in turn, is merely “the aggregate of the laws of language”.

That a poem can have more than one meaning is not a radical idea. But it can be a disturbing idea, particularly with favourite poems, and particularly when a new reading threatens to undo an earlier one. I can find no “happy mediums” here, only tension: the tension between an original meaning found in melody and a newer meaning found in text books; the tension between always being inscribed within language and the understanding that language does not comprise our ultimate reality; and the tension, finally, between the inadequacy of language and a poem brimming with meaning.

But it is tension, I have found, which keeps “Lagunitas” alive. The idea, then, must be not to resolve but to leap. And because I love so much Hass’ gift of the leap — what Denise Levertov calls “the X-factor, the magic” that happens when we come to rifts, to “undreamed abysses,” and we find ourselves “sailing slowly over them and landing on the other side” in “ecstasy” — I conclude with the final lines of “Meditation at Lagunitas”:

Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

Which is beautiful, any way you melt it.

“It is summer as I write, / Northern California. Clear air, a blazing sky in August, / bright shy Audubon’s warblers in the pines,” writes Hass in “The Garden of Warsaw”. Although Hass’ 1997 collection, Sun Under Wood, contains poems with settings in Alaska, Korea, Warsaw, Iowa City and New Jersey, critic Alan Williamson identifies Hass as the poet in his generation “who has made California landscapes most memorably symbolic”:

The landscape is mostly Berkeley, with the long Japanese-print views of the Golden Gate; the Marin County uplands; an occasional glimpse of the Sierras. What it embodies is not majesty, as in Jeffers, or a transhuman alertness, as in Snyder, but a mellow clarity, a late-afternoon warmth in which longing is bounded, life is found acceptable.

“Sweet smell of timothy in the meadow. / Clouds massing east above the ridge in a sky / as blue as the mountain lakes”, Williamson quotes from Hass’ “My Mother’s Nipples” to illustrate his point.

Yet, charm and modesty noted, Peter Davison objects to Hass’ frequent use of “passive, copulative or auxiliary verbs” in his descriptions and complains that Hass’ poems “keep relaxing into the voice of an onlooker rather than taking on the energy of full participation — as though they came to the poet through a window, filter, a screen of white noise and unscented air”. Davison’s assessment is not atypical: it is a slight heard frequently not only from Hass’ critics but also from his otherwise admiring readers. As one “customer reviewer” from Amazon.com wrote of Hass’ Sun Under Wood, “more nature stuff than I remember from Praise, which I rarely understand the point of. It seems an overly romantic view of the world.” Another admitted, “this may be a personal bias of mine; I often find Hass’ longer [nature] poems tiring and repetitive.” But the real surprise comes when Hass himself directly confronts this criticism in “Interrupted Meditation” which discloses a conversation between Hass and, I assume, his friend and colleague, Czeslaw Milosz, who is speaking:

Of course, here, gesturing out the window, pines, ragged green
of a winter lawn, the bay, you can express what you like,
enumerate the vegetation. And you! you have to, I’m afraid,
since you don’t excel at metaphor. A shrewd, quick glance
to see how I have taken this thrust. You write well, clearly.

I still smile when I read these lines. Clearly, Hass has taken the “thrust” well. Not only does Hass “out” this criticism of his poetry, taking his own “shrewd, quick…thrust” at his detractors, but he also provides a parody of it. And it amuses me also because until recently I, too, shared this view.

Until recently, I say, because I no longer read Hass’ landscapes this way. When I think of poets where nature figures prominently in their work, I am inclined to think of Wordsworth’s “glory in the flower” or Whitman “nose down in the grass.” But Hass’ experience of nature, I believe, is quite different. It is not transcendent euphoria. It is, I believe, his private symbol of loss.

For instance, circling back to Williamson, it is entirely possible to get an impression of “mellow clarity” from the lines he quotes from “My Mother’s Nipples, but only if the reader omits the stanza’s first line, “what we’ve never had is a song”, and its last three: “the many seed shapes of the many things / finding their way into flower or not, / that the wind scatters,” which bracket the stanza in melancholy. Or more clearly, if the reader chooses not to read the prose stanza that immediately follows it:

I came home from school and she was gone. I don’t know what in-
stinct sent me to the park. I suppose it was the only place I could
think of where someone might hide: she had passedout under an or-
ange tree, curled up. Her face, flushed, eyelids swollen, was a ruin.
Though I needed urgently to know whatever was in it, I could
hardly bear to look. When I couldn’t wake her, I decided to sit with
her until she woke up. I must have been ten years old: I suppose I
wanted for us to look like a son and mother who had been picnick-
ing, like a mother who had fallen asleep in the warm light and scent
of orange blossoms and a boy who was sitting beside her daydream-
ing, not thinking about anything in particular.

The “justified” text and unwarranted word breaks draw attention to the self-consciousness of both the boy and the adult poet. It is as if Hass is commenting on his tactic of literary referencing as he does in “Our Lady of the Snows” where the mother is visited “in a hospital drying out,” and her son, learning to bear his “navigable sorrow” stands at his older brother’s closet “studying the shirts,” convinced that he “could be absolutely transformed / by something [he] could borrow”. To me Hass views nature this way, as if it is a shirt — or even a body — that he can borrow.

“Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer,” I believe, provides the key to understanding Hass’ private symbol. It is a poem about emptiness, or rather “two emptinesses: one made of pain and desire and one made of vacancy”. Consider, for example, the juxtaposition in these lines: “my throat so swollen with some unsortable mix / of sorrow and desire I couldn’t swallow — / salt smell, grey water, sometimes the fog came in”. Just as lungs fill with air when the pressure is greater outside the body than within, Hass is “filled” with nature when he is at his emptiest. He continues:

and I’d present my emptiness, which was huge, baffled
(Rilke writing in French because there was no German equivalent
for l’absence in ‘the great positive sense’
with which it appeared in Valéry:
one of my minor occupations was raging against Rilke),
and most of the time I felt nothing,
when the moment came that was supposed to embody presence,
nothing really. There were a few buffleheads,
as usual, a few gulls rocking in the surf.

Nature, then, is a mask for his own disembodiment. His “baffled” emptiness is filled by the off-rhyme of the buffleheads. This gesture is also present in “Sonnet” which begins with “A man talking to his ex-wife on the phone” who, we are told, “has loved her voice and listens with attention / to every modulation of its tone”. He knows the voice “intimately” but knows not “what he wants / from the sound of it, from the tendered civility”. And with this admission of need and longing, the man “studies, out the window, the seed shapes / of the broken pods of ornamental trees”. Unlike “Lagunitas,” this poem does not melt as if “ice on a hot stove,” but continues to dissipate, its thrust irrecoverably lost, until it ends on the line “patient animals, and tangled vines, and rain”. Another illustration, my favourite, of Hass using nature as a body comes from “Interrupted Meditation”:

She sat on the couch sobbing, her rib cage shaking
for its accumulated abysses of grief and thick sorrow.
I don’t love you, she said. The terrible thing is

(In my edition of Sun Under Wood the page breaks on this line, making turning the page a shattering act, knowing as I do the next two lines by heart.)

that I don’t think I ever loved you. He thought to himself
what he had done to provoke it. It was May.

And with “May” we know where Hass is headed; out of his body and out the window:
Also pines, lawn, the bay, a blossoming apricot.

Everyone their own devastation. Each on its own scale.

“When you look past my shoulder and out the window,” Hass said in a lecture on imagery, “it is not an aspen you see quivering in the snow, but the play of light on your retinas.” I remember being disappointed with this idea and, when I transcribed it into my journal, I wrote above it, “which robs the world of yet another tree.” But these days I am inclined to see Hass’ comment as another rewriting, another retelling, of his private symbol of loss. But, as Octavio Paz has said, “the feeling of separation is universal.” Paz continues:

It is born at the moment of our birth: as we are wrenched from the Whole, we fall into an alien land. This experience becomes a wound that never heals. It is the unfathomable depth of every man; all our ventures and exploits, all our acts and dreams, are bridges designed to overcome the separation and reunite us with the world and our fellow beings. Each man’s life, and the collective history of mankind, can be seen as an attempt to reconstruct the original situation. An unfinished and endless cure for our divided condition.

By “experiencing” the aspen this way, as enscripted onto his body, Hass attempts this reconstruction. As do all of his poems, I suppose.

“Private pain is easy in a way,” Hass says in “Regalia,” “it doesn’t go away, but you can teach yourself to see its size”. I remember the years following my own divorce, years of my own devastation, when I liked to hike barefoot in California’s San Jacinto mountains. “I have feet like hooves,” I would joke. But it wasn’t a joke — it was my private ritual — walking until I could feel something and, if I was lucky, it was only my feet. On a good day, I would make it as far as “Hidden Lake” and, if it was winter, my body would tear the thin crust of ice as I stepped into it. And I would stand, or sit if I could bear it, until my heart beat so loud I could find it. When I got home, if I was lucky, I was hungry.

In 1997 I attended the annual Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop in Lake Tahoe, California. The idea of the week-long workshop is to write a poem a day, and then workshop it with a “celebrity poet” the next day. My last workshop was with Robert Hass — who was still US Poet Laureate at the time — and I was terribly nervous. But when the moment arrived, it felt a little anticlimactic. His comments on participants’ work were sparse and random, and I got the impression, for all his empathy, that Hass was pained by the process. Or rather, pained by the workshop’s mandate of “positive comments only” — a flawed philosophy, I believe, that insists that poets learn more from being told what is good than what is not; or at least, the philosophy goes, it keeps them writing. And flawed, I say, because it seems to me — a self-accused Romantic — that the whole is better than any half. I thought of Hass’ “minor occupation of raging against Rilke” and wondered if he felt at all stifled, trapped as he was, on only one side of a dialectic. I never did find out. I had written a poem called “Betel Nut and Lime” and it was up next. Hass said he liked my “blank couplets,” that a writer of good couplets was rare, and that he envied my material. I felt I was up to more criticism than that, wanting so desperately to learn, but in the end I was grateful for the fragment.

After the last poem of the workshop was read, Hass was silent. While the other poets offered their praise and “suggestions in the spirit of options,” Hass stared at the floor. He appeared happy or sad, but mostly puzzled. When the commentaries petered into silence, Hass looked up, a little startled to find us still with him. He smiled. “The first word of the first poem on the first day was sorrow,” he said, “and the last word of the last poem on the last day is marrow.” Silence. “I’d call the week a success,” he concluded.

I left Squaw Valley that afternoon and drove south seven hours along I-5, a pittance of highway’s great unbroken length, stretching from Canada down through California’s burgeoning agricultural belt to Mexico. I felt at once invincible and vulnerable as I drove through a herd of migrating butterflies and, in my head, I wrote a first draft of “Driving into Distance.” But once home, instead of writing out my new poem, I sat down to a cup of green tea and rifled through the copious notes and poems I had collected during the week. I needed to locate the first day of workshop. From sorrow to marrow. Its marvel of assonance and rhyme — Carlyle’s “melody that lies hidden in it” — its serendipity and transformation. It felt too near-perfect for coincidence; so near perfect as to appear contrived. I just had to know if Hass was correct. He was. Only connect.

First published in Blue Dog: Australian Poetry 1.1 (2002): 74–80

Foreword: The Best Australian Poetry 2003

The Best Australian Poetry 2003, the first in what we hope will be a long and vibrant series, is a selection of 40 of the best poems published in Australian literary journals and newspapers in the preceding year. Martin Duwell brings to this volume his experience that comes from 35 years in poetry publishing and criticism, as well as a passion for poetry that rivals any poet’s.

Guest Editor: Martin DuwellForeword: Bronwyn Lea
Guest editor: Martin Duwell
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

The Best Australian Poetry 2003, the first in what we hope will be a long and vibrant series, is a selection of 40 of the best poems published in Australian literary journals and newspapers in the preceding year. Poetry in Australia is thriving. According to my somewhat shaky mathematics, in 2002 there were exactly 100 volumes of poetry published (that’s one poetry book for every five novels) and 27 themed anthologies containing at least some poetry. Australian newspapers published almost 400 new poems (as well as reprinting some classics) and Australian literary journals published close to 1,800 poems. As the general editors for The Best Australian Poetry series, Martin Duwell and I hope that this anthology will direct readers to the poetry collections of the poets they enjoyed in this and future issues, as well as point to the literary journals that continue to publish high-quality poems.

We regret that we have not included poetry from Australian internet journals in this anthology. The decision to limit sources to the print media was based, for this year at least, on logistics, but it is possible that this might change in the future. In the meantime, I’d like to point to some websites worth looking at, including Cordite, Divan, Stylus, and John Tranter’s hugely popular Jacket, which brings into conversation poets and critics from around the world. Taking a different tack, Coral Hull’s Thylazine continues to make a case for poetry and activism, as well as provide an Australian poet directory — to which I am indebted in the course of tracking down some of the poets included in this anthology. And then there’s Jayne Fenton Keane’s Slamming the Sonnet website, which makes the most of web technology by using audio and video files to flesh out poetry and breath a little life into the critically-declared “dead” author. Last time I logged on, Queensland poet Sam Wagan Watson held his own in a cyberslam against Yeats, Plath, and Bukowski.

2002, like any year, was a time of things living and things dying. Most significantly it saw the passing of three major poets, Dorothy Hewett, Ron Simpson, and Gary Catalano. The former was always a flamboyant, larger than life figure in Australian poetry but one who showed that poetry could still embrace the large questions of public and private lives. Simpson and Catalano were quieter writers and it might be said they belong to the tradition that imported some of the values of the visual arts — especially a concentration on line — into our poetry. At the institutional level, Robert Adamson and Juno Geme’s Paperbark Press shut its doors after 17 years of publishing some of Australia’s finest poets. Shortly after, Ivor Indyk announced a new arm to his publishing house: the publication of literary works by individual authors under the Giramondo book imprint. Another birth worth noting is Ron Pretty’s revival of Poetry Australia, in this incarnation entitled Blue Dog: Australian Poetry. In Pretty’s editorial for the inaugural issue, he backs up contributing essayist Michael Sharkey’s assessment of the impoverished state of poetry criticism in Australia and puts out a call for “thoughtful pieces written about contemporary Australian poets and their work”. Which seems a good idea.

Given this discussion, then, it is no accident that we have decided to kick off the inaugural issue of The Best Australian Poetry with a guest editor who is not a poet, but a poetry critic. Martin Duwell brings to this volume his experience that comes from 35 years in poetry publishing and criticism, as well as a passion for poetry that rivals any poet’s. Presented with the task of selecting only 40 poems from over 2,000 possible poems, Duwell has created (without much fuss) a terrific collection of high-quality poems that is sure to impress dedicated readers of Australian poetry and newcomers alike. Duwell possesses that rare ability Sharkey calls for in his essay “Reviewing Now”: “the ability of read widely, without prejudice”, which struck me immediately when I read his compilation and noted the diversity of form, voice, style, and subject matter. Duwell has a critic’s eye for quality, but also an anthologist’s sensitivity as to how individual poems converse — how they confront, contradict, affirm, and question one another.

Which brings me to another matter. I began writing this Foreword — then stopped for a long while — in October 2002. It was the time of the bombings in Bali. Which is to say, I wrote this within history, which is to date it. Many poems were born of this time, and like the thousands of 911 poems before them, Bali-bombing poems whizzed around the internet and clogged open-mic readings across the country. How many of these poems will survive remains to be seen — not many occasional poems do — but their existence illustrates Denise Levertov’s assertion (quoting Heidegger interpreting Hölderlin) that to be human is to “be a conversation”. Many it seems turn to the poem when their human need for dialogue, “in concretions that are audible to others”, overwhelms them.