Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Poetic Lives Online

Philip Pullman writes about Blake’s poetry, and argues that it can be appreciated separate from the illuminations.

Thermos interviews Katy Lederer, who we reviewed nearly a year ago.

Anindita Sengupta on Indian English Poetry.

Inferno, the video game. It’s Dante in the same way “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is Homer. Except it’s a video game. And Beatrice is in hell.

More on gender, race and poetry in this post at Harriet. And some good advice as well–advice I plan on taking as Poetry Editor here.

And on that note, would you like to write about poetry for The Rumpus? What was the last book or poem you loved? Send me a write-up, no length requirements, and I’ll publish the best of them. poetry-at-therumpus-dot-net.

Brian Spears

January 31, 2010 Posted by | Poetic Lives Online | Leave a comment

Poetic Lives Online

It’s Saturday night and it’s poetry time. Who else is excited?

I always figured the Irish got excited about poetry. Roddy Doyle says otherwise.

I’m late to the game in discovering the Poetry Foundation’s podcasts, but I’m having some fun listening to them. I liked Ron Silliman’s discussion of writing a poem with an eraser, as well as Carmine Starnino’s “Are Poets Lazy Bastards?”

41 popular moves in contemporary poetry.

I’m double-dipping a little here, as Elisa Gabbert helped on the above link, but I really liked this piece from her website on publishing the poem, not the poet.

John Gallaher asks what it means to be a careerist in poetry.

Twitter recommendation for this week is January Magazine. They do more than just poetry–sometimes they just tweet news story links–but they’re very active and informative.

Brian Spears

January 24, 2010 Posted by | Poetic Lives Online | Leave a comment

An Arundel Tomb

Twice now, in the last couple of months, I’ve come across media pieces on Philip Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb” (which is on my Interpretation of Poetry syllabus for this week), first on BBC4 radio, which is sadly not available online at present, and then today on the Poetry Foundation website–they tweeted it and I followed the link because I really, really like this poem. The funny thing is, neither piece talked about the reason I like the poem, namely, the statement I think Larkin makes about nostalgia.

Let me start by saying it’s perfectly possible that the reason none of these other people mention nostalgia is because it’s so obvious and they’re interested in other matters. I haven’t read any Larkin criticism; for all I know, there’s a book on the way Larkin dealt with nostalgia. But I’m going to blather on about it anyway.

The poem begins with a description of the tomb of the Earl of Arundel and his wife Eleanor in Chichester Cathedral. The Earl and the Countess are side by side atop the tomb, holding hands, he dressed in armor and she in what looks like a nun’s habit, and there are dogs beneath their feet. Larkin describes the effect of seeing the hand-holding as a “sharp tender shock,” an unexpected display of affection given that noble marriages from the medieval period weren’t typically romantic affairs. (Larkin later mourned that he’d gotten this detail wrong, that these two by all accounts did have an affectionate relationship–doesn’t matter, though, since the surprise is the important thing.)

He plays on this a bit in the following stanza:

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

Larkin is punning on the word “lie” here; the whole idea of an elaborate tomb is to make one’s name last far into the future, so he can’t be talking about their physical bodies. No, it seems to me that, because he distrusts the image of the two as a loving couple, he assumes that their hand-holding would be “just a detail friends would see,” and they would write it off to “a sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace” and nothing more. The important information, from the Earl and Countess’s point of view, would be the “Latin names around the base,” not any memory of the romance (or lack thereof) between the inhabitants of the tomb.

Larkin moves this “lie” forward in time and shows how it becomes a truth of sorts, as “succeeding eyes begin / To look, not read.” Future observers who were unable to read the Latin names or were unable to contextualize them would only see the lie of the loving couple. Tourists would visit the cathedral, “Washing at their identity” until all that was left was the image itself, a man of war and his wife, his ungauntleted hand holding hers in this unusual moment of tenderness.

So when Larkin opens his final stanza with the words “Time has transfigured them into / Untruth,” he’s talking about how we look back into the past and see only the rosy parts. We wash away anything disturbing (whenever we can) and so this medieval couple, who one would assume married to unite powerful families or consolidate land gains are now a symbol for love that lasts through time. That’s what Larkin is getting at in his final line, “What will survive of us is love.” The Latin names didn’t make it (in the sense that they don’t signify anything to most people who see the tomb), nor did any stories of what their relationship truly was like. All that was left was the statue. What survives of them is love, whether it really existed or not.

But that’s the thing about memory and nostalgia. It’s completely unreliable. It washes away the ugliness, the grit and crap, and makes things seem prettier, simpler than they ever could have been. The love that survived, that will survive us, will be a lie, not because it isn’t love, but because it will be devoid of context and strife, of any of the dirt that has to be part of any relationship. The notion that we should not speak ill of the dead is one manifestation of this phenomenon. We remember only the good parts, only the beauty, only the love.

January 19, 2010 Posted by | An Arundel Tomb, Philip Larkin | Leave a comment


So I’ve been blogging at The Rumpus and Incertus about the Haiti earthquake response, instead of prepping for classes tomorrow like I ought to have been–it’s too early in the semester to get behind, after all–but about midway through my marathon session, I was forwarded this incredibly wonderful post from Don Share at Harriet. If saying it didn’t automatically negate it, I would say I am humbled by his words.

January 14, 2010 Posted by | Don Share, Harriet | Leave a comment

Poetic Lives Online

Happy Saturday everyone.

So Missouri Governor Jay Nixon wants a Poet Laureate for the state who doesn’t have anything in his or her background that might embarrass him. I take it he doesn’t know many poets.

Connecticut is looking for a Poet Laureate too. No word on embarrassment restrictions.

Did you miss the off-site MLA poetry reading? You can get an .mp3 of it here.

Catherine Halley reports from the Key West Literary Seminar, which is experiencing, I’m sad to say, the least Key-Westian weather in recent memory.

And my Twitter follow recommendation this week is the poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi, author of The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart and Apocalyptic Swing. I’ve been interviewing Gabrielle for The Rumpus and Twitter is a big part of it.

Brian Spears

Crossposted to The Rumpus

January 10, 2010 Posted by | Poetic Lives Online, The Rumpus | Leave a comment

First Impressions: George Witte’s Deniability

I should have loved this book, I think. I agree with Witte’s politics, and my own writing tends toward the metrically formal, which Witte does quite ably throughout Deniability.

And yet…maybe I would have loved this book three years ago, which is when I suspect most of the poems were written, or at least inspired. The cover image is Fernando Botero’s “Abu Ghraib 66” and the second section is made of poems about rendition, torture, and the various justifications the nation’s leaders made for the actions our military took during that time frame. The third section deals with surveillance and an allegorical figure named “Suspicion.”

I’m sure the issue is one of fatigue for me–I’ve spent more time on political blogs for the last five years than is good for one’s mental stability–and I don’t want to ascribe this to Witte’s poems, but when I read “Failure to Comply,” about a set-to at an airport security checkpoint, I find myself not caring, not about the subject nor the poem itself. And that’s not fair to Witte or his art.

There are moments where Witte’s poems transcend the immediate subject matter–the first section is full of them, and I really enjoyed “Likenesses,” which contained this moment:

“So much of who we are,” he said, “depends
on markers humans recognize as us.”
I recalled our daughter Helen
shying from my stroke-strange mother’s kisses,
two years enough to discern alien
in familiar guise.

Even though the poem begins with a specialist who helps repair the faces of people harmed in war, Witte makes the poem more familiar here, and his decision to move away from the strict iambic pentameter he’d been using really brings this moment into focus–the two year old who saw something not-quite-human in her grandmother’s face and shied away.

I won’t be reviewing this for The Rumpus–I’m passing it on to another reviewer, and I hope she can give it a better chance than I did.

January 3, 2010 Posted by | Deniability, First Impressions, George Witte | Leave a comment

Poetic Lives Online

First thing: Chinese poet Lu Xiaobo has been sentenced to eleven years in prison. There isn’t much people can do, but you can register your opinion on this via the PEN American Center website.

Mark Scroggins has inspired me to keep better track of how much poetry I read. Not sure if that’s what he was going for, but that’s what happened.

Gary Barwin comments on what he calls the cage match of Canadian poetry and wonders “why we can’t have both approaches as part of a vital and active poetry world.” Other than “both” buttressing a dichotomic view of poetic options, I agree with him. I think of myself as a poetic populist–room for everyone in the pool.

Alex Beam suggests libraries could help kill the e-book by lending them out. He couldn’t be more wrong.

My Twitter follow recommendation for this week is @rattlepoetry, the feed of Rattle. It’s a journal which is using the web as an addition to their print journal, and they use it well.

Crossposted to The Rumpus

January 3, 2010 Posted by | Poetic Lives Online | Leave a comment

Tracking my Reading

For a long time I thought I read a lot–and I did, compared to the people I was an undergrad with, and among my friends while I was a Witness. Then I got to grad school, and even though I was reading more then than I ever had before, I came to realize that I was a piker, at least when it came to the subject I was studying.

I was reading Mark’s post on bulk-reading and beating myself up over my lax habits when it occurred to me that I don’t really know how much I read in a given year. I’m not in Mark’s league, not by a long shot, but I probably do a better job than I give myself credit for, especially since I started getting books as part of my editor’s gig at The Rumpus.

So since I’ve been looking for ways to use this blog more, I’m going to shamelessly jack an idea from Michael Kelleher and modify it–I’ll post what I’m reading and keep count of it. This will be my New Year’s Resolution, to keep track of how much and how varied my reading is. And I’ll be glad to take suggestions from anyone who passes by and leaves them in the comments.

So right now, I’m in the middle of a couple of books, not counting the two I have to reread in order to review soon. The first is City Dogs by W.S. DiPiero, his latest collection of essays, and I’ve been at this one for a couple of months, reading a snatch here and there and then ruminating on it for days. I love DiPiero’s writing, and have ever since I worked with him at Stanford, and I did some scanning and conversion to text work for him when he was putting this together, so I have a closer connection with some of the content than I would normally have.

The second is Seamus Heaney’s new translation of The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables, which I’ve been reading occasionally before I go to bed. I could just blow through this one, but again, I’ve been taking it a fable at a time. Heaney’s translation is fine, but not inspired, or maybe it’s the subject matter–morality tales get a little heavy-handed at their best, and when I read them one after another, I start to feel like I do when I read Very Intense Bloggers Writing About Very Important Things, and I tune out. The rhythms of the lines don’t vary enough to counteract the occasional creeping numbness, which is why I don’t read much of it in a sitting.

So that’s two, and I’ll update when I finish one and get into another.

Book count: 2

January 1, 2010 Posted by | Mark Scroggins, Michael Kelleher, Seamus Heaney, tracking my reading, W. S. DiPiero | Leave a comment