This is a guest post by Anne Holmes of the Poetry and Literature Center. It was first published on “From the Catbird Seat,” the center’s blog.
This summer, we kicked off our refreshed “Poetry of America” series with a selection of new recordings. Originally launched in 2013 as a counterpart to the Library’s “Songs of America” project, the series comprises field recordings from contemporary American poets. Over the years, we’ve asked poets to choose a singular poem written by another American poet from any period in the nation’s history, record themselves reading the poem and then provide commentary that speaks to how the poem connects to, deepens or re-imagines a sense of the nation. We also ask each participating poet to contribute a poem of their own, which we include alongside the feature.
Below, we’re highlighting excerpts from recordings added in July, including each poet’s commentary to whet your appetite.
Peter Gizzi reads and discusses James Schuyler’s “February”
“I love James Schuyler’s poetry—its effortlessness and grace, its sound, its thick (and at times gnarly) descriptions. A palpable sense of irreality is everywhere present in it; his poems combine the attention of an ethnographic account with the charm of a great dinner guest. Add to this a private reading of the physical world imprinted on his nervous system. In his hyper-real descriptions, colors shift. The words shimmer. The ‘violet sea’ verges on the violent. There’s a deeper cold behind the ‘gold and chilly’ weather as he chronicles a major American city from his window. We see beauty and power twinned, the UN building on big evenings and the green leaves of the tulips on my desk like grass light on flesh.”
Sally Keith reads and discusses Ellen Bryant Voigt’s “Owl”
“I love the way ‘Owl’ (along with all the poems in ‘Headwaters’) is likely to get described as a kind of writerly feat, which it is, but, then, how wrong we would be in settling there. It is the complexity of the innovation in combination with the tender humanity which makes me feel the poem as American. The poem’s belief (if I can say such a thing), felt both in its construction and what it actually says, is not that it has unearthed rare fact, or confessed a dark story, but somehow, and more deeply, that out of pattern and rigor, individuality will emerge, or has, or, better put: our originality is inherent.”
Carol Muske-Dukes reads and discusses Jon Anderson’s “Rosebud”
“This poem is about history and identity in that it is about, as Jon Anderson says, the ‘last important victory’ of the tribes, for the tribes, and also about living in history. Or just about living, he says, how our own lives are gone, disappearing minute by minute. This poem lives in—as the poet says—two landscapes at once; or he implies that it is interior, the exterior, and he seeks to understand each one.”
Diane Seuss reads and discusses Emily Dickinson’s “508 (I’m ceded — I’ve stopped being Theirs —)”
“There is much unspoken in Dickinson’s white space. Her poems, indeed, emerged from white spaces, from a small white woman wearing a white dress. If one could dissect those Dickinson dashes, what untouched subjects would we discover? Still, yet, for a woman writing from the middle of the 1800s, a woman who rarely ventured from her father’s house, the self-claiming in this and so many of her poems is extraordinary, and strikes me as quintessentially American, at least as Americans dream themselves to be.”
Afaa Michael Weaver reads and discusses Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Little Brown Baby”
“I am always inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar’s work. He had such a struggle—he wrote under censorship and under the pressure of the popular tastes of the day—and when I think about the evolution of the identity of African-Americans, I think about this poem in terms of the period in which it was written: the period of blackface minstrelsy, and how the American character was an imposition on the African-American, but also in that interface between the two larger cultures.”
Stay tuned in the coming months for more “Poetry of America” recordings!