Monday, January 01, 2007

Poetry Class! First of 2007!

A new year and some old poems for a new installment of Poetry Class! Some of you will notice that two of these poems are written by authors with whom, to put it mildly, we here at Stevereads have issues. We consider John Updike to be one of the century's most grossly overrated authors, and Vonnegut? An absurd little anomaly, a quirky little cartoon masquerading as a man of letters.

And yet, we liked each of these poems - within limits, of course. Heller's insight in the Vonnegut poem isn't all that insightful, afer all, and the whole last verse of the Updike should be dumped. But even so, we like the poems ...

... ah, but we get ahead of ourselves! It's not for us to tout the values of the poems we post! Oh no! We post them innocently and await the pitying savagery of our betters!

(p.s. 'Rapture' is our favorite)


The dead are villains we pretend to love
Their waxy faces a serene reproach.
We learn their secrets with distaste:

the things they did make them at least
as bad as we are - even worse because
they're dead, and we're alive and might improve.

The dead are villains we pretend to love.
They died deliberately to spite us,
to leach our lifeblood for their awful dryness.

We clothe their faults in all the virtues
they never had, to keep them in their place,
where they should stay, away from us.

The dead are villains we pretend to love
though every now and then we hear their voices
speaking exactly as they spoke to us,

and see their smiles again as they once smiled,
and their hair unfaded as it was in life.

Jamie McKendrick


It is just as they knew it would be:
the proof
of their rightness spread around them
like grass or sidewalks

among the bland custardy palaces
and picnic tables
of their reward. The air
smells of children and coconuts. Truth
blares from every station on the dial.

Do they miss dogs, the black
squelch of November, bittersweet
wringing its red hands?
Are they saddened

to meet an old love without pain
in the gilded silent grove
that lately, come to think of it,
has been looking rather dusty,
and where less and less often they feel someone watching?

The angels are kind, like waiters, but not very talkative.

No wonder they gather, like exiles
straining toward faint reports
crackling up from below -
war, disaster, stars plunging into the sea.

God, it appears, is elsewhere, even here.

Katha Pollitt


What is it like, to be a stolen painting -
to be Rembrandt's "Storm on the Sea of Galilee"
or "The Concert," by Vermeer, both burglarized,
along with "Chez Tortoni" by Manet,
and some Degases, from the Isabella Stewart
Gardner Museum, in Boston, twelve years ago?

Think of how bored they get, stacked
in the warehouse somewhere, say in Mattapan,
gazing at the back of the butcher paper
they are wrapped in, instead of at
the rapt glad faces of those who love art.

Only criminals know where they are.
The gloom of criminality enshrouds them.
Why have we been stolen? they ask themselves.
Who has benefitted? Or do they hang
admired in some sheikh's sandy palace,
or the vault of a mad Manila tycoon?

In their captivity, they may dream of rescue
but cannot cry for help. Their paint
is inert and crackled, their linen friable.
They have one stratagem, the same old one:
to be themselves, on and on.

The boat tilts frozen on the storm's wild wave.
The concert has halted between two notes.
An interregnum, sufficiently extended,
becomes an absence. When wise
and kindly men die, who will restore
disappeared excellence to its throne?

John Updike

Joe Heller

True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
now dead,
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, "Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel 'Catch-22'
has earned in its entire history?"
And Joe said, "I've got something he can never have."
And I said, "What on earth could that be, Joe?"
And Joe said, "The knowledge that I've got enough."
Not bad! Rest in peace!

Kurt Vonnegut


Hippolyta said...

Is Updike empathizing with (and thus likening himself to) a masterpiece created by the hands of Degas, Manet, or dare I say Rembrandt (!!!)? Pretentious ass.

Anonymous said...

One is by now well used to the gratuitous slurs and aspersions cast from this corner of the cyberverse, like so many spitballs from the back of the class, upon an author of manifest gifts: John Updike. So be it. But no sooner does one make one's peace with this perverse stance from an otherwise delightful blog than one is forced to witness the public demeaning of another national treasure: Kurt Vonnegut. Granted, the poem is hackwork, and its appearance here smacks of special pleading. If you dislike Vonnegut, you cannot but dislike his dharma-ancestor, as it were: Mark Twain, with whom he shares Midwestern provenance, a gift for cynical opinions felicitously put, and not a few aspects of coiffure. Would Twain, too, be a cartoon, in your opinion, Steve?


Jeff E. said...

Oooooooh. (*psst* good one Bertrand)

Beepy said...

I rather liked the Updike poem, although I have to go on record as knowing absolutely nothing about what makes good poetry. I just like the idea of putting myself in the position of one of those paintings. Isn't that what literature is supposed to do, give us new views of things we've looked at plenty of times before?

I also like Heller's comment but that has nothing to do with the poem or Vonnegut.

Can someone do for these poems what Galaxy Editor did for the last bunch that Steve posted? I found that to be very illuminating.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!onemilionsupergod!3232 said...


Kevin Caron said...

I like that the Updike poem mentions Mattapan. Brings me back to my days as a bank teller there.

Not sure that the proper plural of Degas is Degases, though.

Sam Sacks said...

Aw, geez, this HAS to be facetious. We're all reliably reading the posts now, so you can just throw ANYTHING on them? Bertrand is right to object--misanthropic little disses don't fly as ASIDES, especially if you then post a tossaway "poem"--probably given as a friendly gift by Vonnegut to some publication that could benefit from his name--and suggest that poem is somehow good whereas all his real work was awful.

(I mean, you know that it's nothing at all, except that it has nice things to say about Joseph Heller. That and the Updike, that's not poetry--that is PROSE; prose given arbitrary poem-like line breaks. Write them out without the line breaks and what do you get? Straightforward PROSE--purple prose in Updike's case.)

(The first one, the McKendrick, is good, though. It rhythmically elaborates on a harrowing refrain. It's dark but musical, and its main idea is distilled into a single memorable verse.)

ALL of Vonnegut's novels are bad? It's not just his later, self-derivative work? He's not simply an annoyance because he's become the be-all and end-all for coeds across the country? What does it mean exactly that he's an anomaly? I found Cat's Cradle fairly lightweight when I went back to it recently, more cute and quirky than deeply felt--but it did have its moments and obviously has an iconic genius (he would have been a wealthy ad-man). But you seem to be tossing out the baby and asking us to examine the puddle of bilgewater left over on the floor.

steve said...

Geez, I've struck a pro-Vonnegut nerve, of all freakin' things!

A) I never said the poem was GOOD, only that I kinda liked it! I was offering it up to criticism, as one might do in something called Poetry Class!


B) 'National Treasure'??? Geez, Bertrand, you want some cake to go with the Kool-Aid you've obviously swigged?

I'm sure you have fond adolescent memories of Vonnegut - thanks to school reading lists, he stands firmly at the gateway of 'adult' reading for ... well, for every single person in the entire country, it seems. But good gawd, go back and read one of his books - hell, make it 'Slaughterhouse Five' - again now, as a (presumed) adult! There's nothing there but cutesy, self-reverentially 'look ma, I'm writing' gimmickery!

And yes, I know you could theoretically say something similar about lots and lots of Twain's work, but with one crucial difference: Twain is almost always FUNNY. Vonnegut never is.

It ain't a gratuitious slur! It comes from reading his books, always with hope of finding something good ...

editor galaxy said...

First of all, Steve, you should go to the Flim Forum Press reading, Sat. the 6th, 7pm, at Porter Square Books. There you will be presented with good poetry, and it would be interesting to see if any of it appeals.

Some quick notes:

Vonnegut's isn't a poem, I don't care how many line breaks were made. I wondered if perhaps someone other than Vonnegut had inserted line breaks.

Updike's poem also suffers from his apparent inability to write lines that don't read like prose. I mean, "...from the Isabella Stewart/ Gardner Museum, in Boston, twelve years ago...." I'm getting ready to accuse Steve of having forced a goofy "Talk of the Town" article from the New Yorker into stanzas.

Pollitt's poem suffers from self-rightouesness, every bit as irritating as the self-righteous folk she's mocking. Her punchline is dull--and that's what that last line is--a punchline--nothing more. Her concept--that the Heaven simple-minded Christians describe is dull--is not particularly inventive, and that's where her trouble begins. She relies entirely on her ability to descibe, "among bland custardy palaces,"--and that ability is not great. Her similes are strained, too--that line about the line of exiles--is that really vivid? Clear? Could it be shorter, more precise?

"Unfaded" is the most poetic of the lot. "The dead are villians we pretend to love" is an interesting statement, but proves not to have been thought out very well when the author rambles on with this: " least as bad as we are--even worse because...." Does that not read like someone thinking aloud? That's the sort of thinking that ought to be refined before it becomes a line in a published poem. To give the poem a little praise, line two and three are satisfactorily off-rhymed ("serene reproach" with "secrets with distaste"); the poet attempts--and sometimes succeeds--to reproduce that affect throughout. A good instinct.

Steve, another bad batch, I'm afraid.