Poetic Affinities and Inspiration

Naomi Shihab Nye, Robert Pinsky, and Gerald Stern opened up the day of panel discussions with a conversation about "Poetic Affinities and Inspiration." Pinsky placed emphasis on being conscious of one's own sources of inspiration, suggesting that everybody should gather their favorite poems together as an exercise in self-knowledge.

Gerald Stern listed some of the poets he feels closest to: Walt Whitman, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Burns, and François Villon, as well as the biblical prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah. He then read a poem that he found particularly inspiring, Carlos Drummond de Andrade's "Souvenir of the Ancient World," translated from the Portuguese by Mark Strand. He followed by reading his own poem to show the relation between inspiration and his own poetic product.

Drawing on the recent addition to New York City's landscape, Naomi Shihab Nye spoke of finding the inspiring poems that "create a High Line inside yourself" and the poems that one can share with others. She read William Stafford's "The Sky," recollecting the power of first hearing a poem as a child—how its transporting sound had "struck that bell in the air." She also emphasized the value of introducing poetry to children and seeing their immediate, organic responses to the sound of words.

Pinsky expanded on these sensory delights that poetry can offer, encouraging the audience to "read the way a cook eats." The childhood experience of poetry, he observed, was similar to inspiration in other art forms. He noted how the jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon had said his inspiration came from "the feeling that the music I love gave me when I was young." Pinsky then read William Carlos Williams's "Fine Work with Pitch and Copper" and reflected on the technical aspects of the poem's sound, its physical beauty. To complicate the idea of inspiration, Stern observed that often one is envious of a great poem, before eventually coming to peace with it and forming one's own equivalent.

Taking questions from the audience, the panelists ruminated on their methods of overcoming blocks and difficulty in writing. Nye emphasized the importance, above all else, of reading inspiring work and surrounding oneself "with the books you love." Similarly, Pinsky recommended copying out some of the best poems, or simply "looking at something you think is great." But he admitted that the poet's work does not get easier over time, and that he finds the same problems and anxieties in his process now as at the age of twenty. "I don't write very easily," he confessed, half-joking. "I just wait until the self-loathing becomes too intense."

Wild and Strange Language

Lyn Hejinian, Ron Padgett, Carl Phillips and Kay Ryan assembled to discuss the place of oddness or eccentricity in poetic language. Hejinian began by positing different varieties of strangeness, akin to the binary of Ariel and Caliban in Shakespeare's The Tempest. Among the divergent examples she read from were Clark Coolidge, Will Alexander, Anne Waldman, Jack Spicer, and Michael McClure.

Ron Padgett added his own trove of strange poetries that have inspired him since his teenage years, including the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Kurt Schwitters, Russian Futurists like Velimir Khlebnikov, James Joyce, Cesar Valléjo, and Joseph Ceravolo. All these writers, Padgett claimed, had "opened up my eye and my ear." He also emphasized the value of "babytalk," and of intentionally poor translations, as sites of peculiar language.

Carl Phillips noted that all interesting poetry is strange when first encountered. He posited that over time, though, it becomes a matter of context; we can only know that something is wild by the tameness that surrounds it. "To me, all poetry is the tension between wildness and familiarity," he stated. To support this point, he read two poems: Laura Jensen's "Heavy Snowfall in a Year Gone Past", which flips between predictable and radical diction, thereby giving the poem "torque, or muscle"; and John Wieners "Anniversary", which employs an old-fashioned syntax but eventually breaks away, creating "something wrong, something off, some slippage in the last stanza."

Kay Ryan suggested that poetry can "destabilize and then reorganize us," as occurs for the speaker in Robert Frost's "Dust of Snow." Every poem has to be strange, Ryan argued, "because a poem, by its nature, changes us," offering the reader an opportunity to "receive grace." Hejinian questioned this assumption, claiming that a definition based on the poem's capacity to change the reader was "too restrictive a view of poetry." She offered that poetry is valuable when its language frustrates the reader, which is the opposite of the consoling aspects of sure meaning.

Ryan rejoined by pointing out that words are, in spite of their oddness or failures, "carriers of meaning" most fundamentally. Hejinian offered Gertrude Stein as a counterexample, and Padgett pointed to all the words in the English language (like prepositions, for example) that have no inherent meaning, but gain sense through their context.

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The Legacy of Walt Whitman

In the afternoon, Susan Stewart and C.K. Williams sat down to discuss what American poetry has inherited from Walt Whitman. Williams began by reading from "To Think of Time" and considering the forms of rhetoric Whitman employs. Although he often begins with generalization and moves through abstractions, Whitman is a master of anecdotes—what one may consider as "a series of brilliant instances" or, in the language of Stephen Greenblatt, "successions of brief encounters." This rhetoric, Williams suggested, also gives Whitman's verse its unique vision of time. The temporal sense of Whitman's poetry relies on his grand, free verse forms, as well as an idea of “inclusive time” that can describe varieties of experience.

Susan Stewart read the poem "Come Up From the Fields, Father," and mentioned that she has developed a great love for Whitman over time. She remarked that "[Whitman's] is a poetry that seeks to understand what America as a nation means, in the tradition of the Greek epic poets who were his ancestors." Stewart pointed to the many art forms that influenced Whitman or that would be influenced by his wide-ranging, expansive visions, including opera, photography, and even film.

Both chancellors noted Whitman's wide range of interests. Williams suggested that Whitman is, at times, the great American nature poet, due to his fine attention to the world around him. Stewart agreed, noting Whitman's observations in Specimen Days. She also pointed to his balance between tremendous narcissism and powerful attention to his surroundings.

Williams posited that Whitman's influence on poets around the world may be greater than any other poet, pointing out that Whitman has been so important to writers in other countries, and those who write in other languages. Whitman's first wave of popularity was not in the United States but in Britain, where Gerard Manley Hopkins read him and "was aware of the force that had arrived in the world." Whitman's poetry is a great way to "export democracy," Stewart added.

In closing, Stewart and Williams pointed to other poets who have been influenced by Whitman, such as Wallace Stevens. Marilyn Hacker took the microphone to suggest that Muriel Rukeyser's poetry, with its wide-ranging sources, was quite indebted to Whitman. Edward Hirsch also contributed, saying that Whitman's influence on Latin American letters has taken on two strands, symbolized by Pablo Neruda (a poetry that assumes that the speaker of the poems and the historical Whitman are one) and Jorge Luis Borges (implying a fictionalizing gap between the poetic "I" and Whitman himself).