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Ron Romanowski -- Night Table Recommendations

Thursday, Feb 09, 2012 at 8:45pm

stretching a tripping line from ginsberg to muldoon

when the withering hand raises its statues chiseling Moloch-granites
at
their
edge
at
the
margins
poetry
grain
by
grain
digs
its
gates
seam
by
seam
pulls
the
threads
unnoticed
unraveling

The Israeli writer Amos Oz remarked on Charlie Rose's PBS interview show recently that he walks in the desert among the ancient stones near his home every morning to "put things in perspective". To me Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" is one of those lasting touchstones. With it I judge the quality of my own work and that of other writers. Editor Jason Shinder's twenty-six essay collection The Poem That Changed America: "Howl" Fifty Years Later (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is a book that I have kept on my night-table for a long time because it is fascinating to read how others value Ginsberg's 1956 poem, or not (the book is not all panegyric).

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The essays I enjoy the most in Shinder's book are Andrei Codescu's "Howl" in Transylvania, Rick Moody's On the Granite Steps of the Madhouse with Shaven Heads, Amira Baraka's "Howl" and Hail, and former US poet-laureate Robert Pinsky's No Picnic. Besides the a version of the 1956 mimeographed manuscript copy of "Howl" and the essays, the book also contains short quotes about "Howl" including this astute one from Czeslaw Milosz:

The sign of Moloch is everywhere and all the cities are one city, all the highways are one highway, all the stores are one store, and to travel a thousand miles becomes meaningless, for wherever you turn, you come up against the same moving wall.

I, of course, don't exactly know how and that is part of the mystery of the poem's lasting power, but reading "Howl" and these essays seems to provide hope of resistance even in these ultra-conservative times where the spread of what some call totalitarian capitalism seems almost unstoppable.

Also published in 2006 is Irish poet Paul Muldoon's essay collection The End of the Poem (Oxford Lectures) (Farrrar, Stroux & Giroux). Every poet I know that has read this book is enraptured by it. It is still too early to tell if it will be a lasting classic in the poetry world like "Howl" but its essays are so exuberant, so intelligent and so generous with allusion and scholarship that one might never need worry again about the future of poetry and those poets influenced by Paul Muldoon. The title is itself a glorious irony as we clearly see quite early on in the book that there is no eschatological end of the poem in sight but rather the "end" in the title is everything but.

My favorite essays in the book are I tried to think a lonelier thing by Emily Dickenson and Sea Poppies by H.D. [Hilda Doolittle of Imagist movement fame].

(An interesting Canadian aside is how Muldoon uses John McRae's "In Flanders Fields" here.)

In another meaning of "end" we see there is also no bottom to Muldoon's analysis. One senses that he could have gone on ad infinitum in analyzing his chosen poems but for the constraints of time and/or space. I sometimes wish that there had been DVD's made of the lectures for one can almost discern smiles or even laughter from time to time in the writing.

As for his critical method, Paul Muldoon uses whatever he needs: from the tenets of Post-modernism, to the idea that a name guides a poet, to his sophisticated form of New-Criticism, to Freudian analysis. In fact these ideas seem to serve merely as theoretical signposts for the reader from which Muldoon fascinatingly meanders wherever his will takes him. This book should be a read of pure intellectual pleasure for both writers and readers of poetry alike.

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Ron Romanowski is a Winnipeg writer whose last book of poetry, The Big Book of Canadian Poetry (Augustine Hand), was published in 2011. His work has appeared in journals such as CV2 and in numerous anthologies including Witness (poems about war) and Myth Weavers (Canadian mythology), and in his 2009 collection Insurrection. His poetry has been read on national CBC Radio. On Wednesday, May 2, Ron will be joining Six Poets in Search of a New Literary Movement here as part of the city's annual MayWorks Festival of Labour and the Arts.

Categories: Reviews, Poetry, Discussions, Authors, Winnipeg, Night Table Recommendations

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See:

The Poem That Changed America

- Jason Shinder

Trade paperback $31.50 - Add to Cart
Reader Reward Price: $28.35

A tribute to Ginsberg's signature work, which stirred a generation of angel-headed hipsters to cultural rebellion.

In 1956, City Lights, a small San Francisco bookstore, published Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems with its trademark black-and-white cover. The original edition cost seventy-five cents, but there was something priceless about its eponymous piece. Although it gave a voice to the new generation that came of age in the conservative years following World War II, the poem also conferred a strange, subversive power that continues to exert its influence to this day. Ginsberg went on to become one of the most eminent and celebrated writers of the second half of the twentieth century, and "Howl" became the critical axis of the worldwide literary, cultural, and political movement that would be known as the Beat generation.

The year 2006 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of "Howl," and The Poem That Changed America will celebrate and shed new light on this profound cultural work. With new essays by many of today's most distinguished writers, including Frank Bidart, Andrei Codrescu, Vivian Gornick, Phillip Lopate, Daphne Merkin, Rick Moody, Robert Pinsky, and Luc Sante, The Poem That Changed America reveals the pioneering influence of "Howl" down through the decades and its powerful resonance today.

The End of the Poem

- Paul Muldoon

Trade paperback $31.00 - Add to Cart
Reader Reward Price: $27.90

In The End of the Poem, Paul Muldoon dazzlingly explores a diverse group of poems, from Yeats's "All Souls' Night" to Stevie Smith's "I Remember" to Fernando Pessoa's "Autopsychography." Muldoon reminds us that the word "poem" comes, via French, from the Latin and Greek: "a thing made or created." He asks: Can a poem ever be a free-standing structure, or must it always interface with the whole of its author's bibliography--and biography? Muldoon explores the boundlessness created by influence, what Robert Frost meant when he insisted that "the way to read a poem in prose or verse is in the light of all the other poems ever written."

Finally, Muldoon returns to the most fruitful, and fraught, aspect of the phrase "the end of the poem": the interpretation that centers on the "aim" or "function" of a poem, and the question of whether or not the end of the poem is the beginning of criticism. Irreverent and deeply learned, The End of the Poem is a vigorous approach to looking at poetry anew.