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W. S. Merwin, a fellow pacifist, writer, and gardener, was a hero in all things to me.
The poet died this weekend at the age of 91 in his Hawaiian home. He was one of the first authors who wrote verse about the catastrophes of the Vietnam War and its effects not just on the American soldiers, but on the devastated Vietnamese countryside and people. He refused to accept his Pulitzer Prize for his book The Carrier of Ladders in 1971 because of the tragedies occurring in southeast Asia centering on the Vietnam War.
Merwin reclaimed his “garden,” nineteen acres of Hawaiian pineapple plantation land that had been wrecked by agricultural abuse. Over forty years, he hand-planted the dirt with 3,000 palm seedlings and transformed barren fields into a native rainforest. That land is now in permanent conservation.
But most of all, I admire Merwin for his gem-like poems of sheer beauty. What this writer could do with words – both his own and with those of French, Spanish, Latin and Italian poets that he translated – was astonishing.
Merwin visited HoCoPoLitSo in 1994, just after he had won the first Tanning Poetry Prize, which was awarded to a master American poet, but before he won his second Pulitzer in 2009. He spoke to a small group of 50 people about the craft of writing, then read his poetry to the audience that crowded the ballroom, lobby and stairways of Oakland Manor.
Earlier that day, he taped an episode of The Writing Life, HoCoPoLitSo’s writer-to-writer talk show. On that show, he spoke with poet Roland Flint about a coming environmental crisis in the world: “What is happening to the great forests in the world, I feel it like an illness,” Merwin said, thumping his fist into his belly. Because people have cut themselves off from the world outside their windows and screens, “we find ourselves in a place that is false and dangerous, and increasingly destructive.”
To watch him read his exquisite verse, “Late Spring,” “West Wall,” and “The Solstice” from The Rain in the Trees, and two poems from Travels, “Witness” and “Place” watch The Writing Life episode.
In the unmade light I can see the world
as the leaves brighten I see the air
the shadows melt and the apricots appear
now that the branches vanish I see the apricots
from a thousand trees ripening in the air
they are ripening in the sun along the west wall
apricots beyond number are ripening in the daylight
Whatever was there
I never saw those apricots swaying in the light
I might have stood in orchards forever
without beholding the day in the apricots
or knowing the ripeness of the lucid air
or touching the apricots in your skin
or tasting in your mouth the sun in the apricots
Susan Thornton Hobby
His Excellency Daniel Mulhall, the Irish Ambassador to America, drew a hearty laugh from the audience at Friday night’s Irish Evening of Music and Poetry.
As a daily counterbalance to the insanity on Twitter, Mulhall sends out a few lines of Irish poetry every morning.
To the audience at the poetry reading last week, Mulhall joked that he’s starting a campaign: “It’s time to Make Poetry Great Again.”
After the laughter died down, HoCoPoLitSo board members could be heard muttering amongst themselves, “Poetry was always great.”
But timeline quibbles aside, HoCoPoLitSo was thrilled to welcome the ambassador and sterling poet Vona Groarke to the forty-first Irish Evening.
Last Friday morning, in tribute to Irish Evening, Mulhall sent into the Twitterverse a few lines from Groarke’s beautiful poetry:
Anyway, the leaves were almost on the turn
And the roses, such as they were, had gone too far.
It was snow in summer. It was love in a mist.
It was what do you call it, and what is its name
And how does it go when it comes to be gone?
There’s at least one thing that Mulhall and U.S. President Donald Trump share – they like to start the day with a Tweet. But oh, there’s a world of difference between them.
The poems Groarke read on Friday night were both tender and fierce. Her “Pier,” was well applauded for its verve in chronicling the leap from a pier into the Atlantic on Spittel beach, on the West coast of Ireland. Though Groarke confessed that she hasn’t yet made the leap herself, she’s watched it done, she said, a bit sheepishly. And the poem proves she can feel it.
Many in the audience commended Groarke’s translation from the Irish – the first by a woman poet – of “The Lament for Art O’Leary.” This poem chronicles the mourning and protest of a wife, keening over the body of her Catholic husband, killed by the Protestants, ostensibly for having too fine a horse. And Groarke’s translation was both sensual and sorrowful.
The selections of prose Groarke read from Four Sides Full, her book of prose about art frames, were illuminating, particularly the anecdote about the show of empty frames in the Hermitage in Leningrad, signifying the hiding of artwork to preserve it.
Poetry and music brought some 300 people together last Friday night. Perhaps verse can heal divisions in countries, between people, if we only open our hearts to others’ stories.
Susan Thornton Hobby
HoCoPoLitSo has a history of pulling together people, words and music. A forty-year history, in fact.
On Oct. 22, HoCoPoLitSo made history again at a celebration of its fortieth anniversary, a free multi-media event called “A Word of Difference: Rita Dove and Joshua Coyne Celebrate History and Creativity.”
For the first time, prodigy violinist Joshua Coyne and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove shared the stage to perform works inspired by an almost-forgotten eighteenth-century Afro-Polish musician — George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower. Dove read poems from her biographical book of poems about Bridgetower, Sonata Mulattica, and Coyne played his own composition, “Fingers,” a plaintive work meant to embody Bridgetower’s doomed career. The program was filmed by a crew from Spark Media for a documentary of the same name as Dove’s 2009 book, and a selection of scenes from the documentary premiered at the HoCoPoLitSo event.
Dove, whose book was described by the New Yorker as “a virtuosic treatment of a virtuoso’s life,” explained Bridgetower’s story at the reading. First, a musical tot is discovered in the servant’s quarters and given a tiny violin, an overbearing African “prince” as a father showcases his son’s prodigious talents, the boy’s talent blossoms under Haydn’s tutelage and the patronage of the Prince of Wales. Then, as a youth, Bridgetower meets Beethoven.
Beethoven and Bridgetower collaborate on an intricate sonata, which the going-deaf composer dedicates to his “crazy mulatto,” according to historical letters. Then the story turns even more soap opera: the handsome young Bridgetower either insults or flirts with or steals (according to one’s perspective) a young woman that Beethoven has been coveting.
The elder musician rages, tears up the dedication page, and Bridgetower retreats from Vienna in shame. His career skids to a halt a scant decade or so after it began. He dies in the London slums seventy years after he played in Paris to great acclaim.
Dove read a poem about the father giving his boy “The Wardrobe Lesson,” so he’ll dress in bright colors and flowing costumes to highlight his “exotic” background. She read “Augarten, 7 a.m.,” about the early-morning concert that premiered the sonata, which Beethoven later rededicated to violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, who pronounced it so complicated it was “unplayable.” She concluded the reading with “The End, with Mapquest,” about her family’s trip to find the spot where Bridgetower died, in south London, asking at last, “how does a shadow shine?”
After Coyne’s two original songs were performed, one based on Langston Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred” and sung by Emmett Gabriel Tross, and the second played by Coyne on the violin, Dove and Coyne sat down for a discussion with the audience, moderated by HoCoPoLitSo board co-chair Tara Hart.
The two artists talked about when they first met and how they threw back and forth improvisations on free verse and piano music. And Dove explained that she formerly played cello.
“I must have music in my life,” she said. “Poetry can make the language sing, and like music, can create an emotion that is speechless.”
Coyne talked about playing the Bridgetower sonata, about it being a dialogue between the piano and the violin, and how “it is a killer,” he laughed.
And they offered advice to artists everywhere, on which work was the hardest they have composed (both agreed, they were all the hardest), and to learn to relax about creating.
“This is not a race to be an artist,” Dove said. “It feeds something in you.”
Coyne agreed: “Make sure you’re not going too fast to notice things.”
Outside, after the cheese and fruit were picked clean, and the red-clad volunteers from Columbia’s Delta Sigma Theta alumnae chapter had gone home, Dove lingered for photos and signatures on her books. Across the glossy foyer, sticky notes papered a column with thoughts about the evening written by audience members: “DEEP,” “inspiring,” “awesome,” they read.
This performance was presented free to audience members to commemorate the first reading HoCoPoLitSo offered, in November, 1974, by the late poets Lucille Clifton and Carolyn Kizer. HoCoPoLitSo is grateful to partners and donors that made the evening possible — the Alpha Phi Alpha Foundation, Candlelight Concert Society, the Columbia Film Society, the Howard Community College Music Department and the Columbia (Md.) Alumnae Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
To help HoCoPoLitSo continue pull together programs of this variety and quality, and make them available to all in the community, please consider making a donation.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Poet’s Passage is a spot every community should have. Darned if it isn’t in Puerto Rico.
The shop, part coffee shop, part art store, part living room for the little old city, sits beside the little old supermarket on Calle de la Cruz in Old San Juan. All the streets in Old San Juan are cobbled in bluish stone called adoquine that arrived in Puerto Rico as ballast on Spanish ships in the 1500s. The light from shop windows makes the streets glow indigo in the frequent rain at night. One half of The Poet’s Passage is a coffee shop, with drinks like the Metaphor café latte, or the espresso (of course, called a Haiku), or the Rhyme, a latte with vanilla, almond and caramel. There are comfy chairs, a wide window to look out on the plaza, and pastries.
Across a hall is the poetry shop, with paintings, poetry in calligraphy and on ceramic tiles, poetry books and sculpture for sale. There’s also a chatty parrot named Neruda who sometimes nips.
Every Tuesday night, the shop hosts an open mic poetry reading, usually with music, and sometimes the event spills out into the plaza across the street. One reading in March drew almost 2,000 people, then they had to move it indoors at midnight and it stretched on until 3 a.m.
Just beside the main, but tiny, supermarket in Old San Juan, The Poet’s Passage is owned by Lady Lee Andrews, a poet with three books published (Naturally, Changing and True Love), and her husband Nicolas Thomassin, who paints lovely images of the doors, landscapes and cobbled streets of Old San Juan and sells the prints for reasonable prices. He also makes the miniature plaster doors in the rainbow sherbet colors of Puerto Rico.
Andrews’ poetry is both personal and universal, with lines like: “I looked up and saw nothing there/ to cover the blue/ fresh air I was breathing in/ I think I closed my eyes twice/ before I realized I was/ dreaming like a child/ with a red kite.”
Old San Juan is the kind of place that on Easter Sunday afternoon, hundreds of people from the town turn out to fly kites on the grounds of the El Morro, the sixteenth-century Spanish citadel built to guard the Caribbean. It’s also the kind of place that values poetry enough to keep a poetry store in business. The Poet’s Passage feels like a community hub – the kind of organization that HoCoPoLitSo seeks to be. If only we had the Puerto Rican trade winds and sunshine.