Epistle to a Godson by W.H. Auden

DEAR PHILIP. “Thank God for boozy godfathers”
you wrote in our guest-book, which was flattering:
     though I’ve reached the years when discretion
     calls for a yearly medical check-up,

who am I to avouch for a Christian
baby, far less offer ghostly platitudes
     to a young man? In yester times it
     was different: the old could be helpful

when they could nicely envisage the future
as a nameable settled landscape their children
     would make the same sense of as they did,
     laughing and weeping at the same stories.

This poem from 1969 was dedicated to Philip Spender, nephew of the poet Stephen Spender, a close friend of Auden’s.

Read more from Auden as we celebrate National Poetry Month

Mango Seedling by Chinua Achebe

Through glass window pane
Up a modern office block
I saw, two floors below, on wide-jutting
Concrete canopy a mango seedling newly sprouted
Purple, two-leafed, standing on its burst
Black yolk. It waved brightly to sun and wind
Between rains—daily regaling itself
On seed-yams, prodigally.

For how long?
How long the happy waving
From precipice of rainswept sarcophagus?
How long the feast on remnant flour
At pot bottom?
    Perhaps like the widow
Of infinite faith it stood in wait
For the holy man of the forest, shaggy-haired
Powered for eternal replenishment.
Or else it hoped for Old Tortoise’s miraculous feast
On one ever recurring dot of cocoyam
Set in a large bowl of green vegetables—
   These days beyond fable, beyond faith?
   Then I saw it
Poised in courageous impartiality
Between the primordial quarrel of Earth
And Sky striving bravely to sink roots
Into objectivity, mid-air in stone.

From the May 22, 1969 issue of the Review

Happy Robert Burns Day! On January 25, Scots celebrate the poet’s birthday with haggis, whisky and bagpipes in a party that John Carey calls “an orgy of assertive nationalism that has nothing remotely to do with literature.” “If you ask a group of academic friends to list the great poets of the last two or three hundred years,” Carey writes, “it is quite likely that his name will not come up at all.” Yet for Burns’s biographer, the author of “O my luve’s like a red, red rose” and “To a Louse, On Seeing one on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church” is very much worth literary examination.

Happy Robert Burns Day! On January 25, Scots celebrate the poet’s birthday with haggis, whisky and bagpipes in a party that John Carey calls “an orgy of assertive nationalism that has nothing remotely to do with literature.” “If you ask a group of academic friends to list the great poets of the last two or three hundred years,” Carey writes, “it is quite likely that his name will not come up at all.” Yet for Burns’s biographer, the author of “O my luve’s like a red, red rose” and “To a Louse, On Seeing one on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church” is very much worth literary examination.

In memory of Stephen A. Aaron (1936–2012)

You were the loudest of us all by far,
And the sweetest behind your fear,
Brilliant expositor of Arthur Miller and Shakespeare.
There you are at the beginning of your career

Bellowing like a carny barker
In the Freshman Commons, selling tickets to some
HDC production with your tuba voice and bigger nose.
The stylish fellows like myself were appalled…

Moto Poeta by Frederick Seidel

In a country that now regards money as the highest good, doing something for the love of it is not just odd, but downright perverse. Imagine the horror and anger felt by parents of a son or daughter who was destined for the Harvard Business School and a career in finance but discovered an interest in poetry instead. Imagine their enticing descriptions of the future riches and power awaiting their child while trying to make him or her reconsider the decision. “Who has recognized you as a poet? Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?,” the trial judge shouted at the Russian poet Josef Brodsky, before sentencing him to five years of hard labor. “No one,” Brodsky replied. He could have been speaking for all the sons and daughters who had to face their parents’ wrath.
Charles Simic, Poets and Money
Tim Parks: Does Copyright Matter?

Copyright is part of a mass of legislation that governs the relationship between individual and collective, for the most part defending the former against the latter. You will only have copyright in a society that places a very high value on the individual, the individual intellect, the products of individual intellect.…

Officially the idea is that the writer, artist, or musician should be allowed to reap the just rewards for his effort. This is quaint. There is very little justice in the returns artists receive. Works of equal value and quality produce quite different incomes or no income at all. Somebody becomes a millionaire overnight and someone else cannot even publish. It is perfectly possible that the quality of work of these two writers is very similar. The same book may have a quite different fate in different countries. Any notion of justice in the incomes of artists is naive.

Photo: Raymond Carver signing books, New York City, 1988 (Bob Adelman/Magnum Photos)

Tim Parks: Does Copyright Matter?

Copyright is part of a mass of legislation that governs the relationship between individual and collective, for the most part defending the former against the latter. You will only have copyright in a society that places a very high value on the individual, the individual intellect, the products of individual intellect.…

Officially the idea is that the writer, artist, or musician should be allowed to reap the just rewards for his effort. This is quaint. There is very little justice in the returns artists receive. Works of equal value and quality produce quite different incomes or no income at all. Somebody becomes a millionaire overnight and someone else cannot even publish. It is perfectly possible that the quality of work of these two writers is very similar. The same book may have a quite different fate in different countries. Any notion of justice in the incomes of artists is naive.

Photo: Raymond Carver signing books, New York City, 1988 (Bob Adelman/Magnum Photos)

Summer Reading, by John Ashbery

With these lighter days a concomitant
urge to scrutiny arrives. Signing in,
my motivation palls, pusillanimous.
Are we to take it inside the house?
I have to go.

Tell me another dream. The long events surface
wider, farther apart, like autumn breakers.
Birds are suddenly there. The house of cards
on sand falters, fatally. I’m elated.

You never know how things work out
except through “sleight” of hand, sometimes.
I’m worried about knowing later.
The high-school principal killed his star student,

for instance. Feeling competent,
they quashed him. Until he wins the crisis
we can’t promote it. Keep that rodent away.
What have you seemed to do?

Do interesting things well done and may
spring chasten you. We had everything in mind.
Everything softballed, wound up on my back porch.
It’s okay, though. Keep us on your docket. Cut through the…

© John Ashbery, from the October 9, 2008 issue of The New York Review of Books. Ashbery reads this and other poems in a 2009 podcast.

Creative writing schools are frequently blamed for a growing standardization and flattening in contemporary narrative. This is unfair. It is the anxiety of the writers about being excluded from their chosen career, together with a shared belief that we know what literature is and can learn how to produce it that encourages people to write similar books. Nobody is actually expecting anything very new. Just new versions of the old. Again and again when reading for review, or doing jury service perhaps for a prize, I come across carefully written novels that “do literature” as it is known. Literary fiction has become a genre like any other, with a certain trajectory, a predictable pay off, and a fairly limited and well-charted body of liberal Western wisdom to purvey.
“Poetry is made in bed like love,” André Breton wrote in one of his surrealist poems. I was a very young man when I read that, and I was enchanted. It confirmed my own experience. When the desire comes over me to write, I have no choice but to remain in a horizontal position, or if I have risen hours before, to hurry back to bed. Silence or noise makes no difference to me. In hotels, I use the “Don’t Disturb” sign on the door to keep away the maids waiting to clean my room. To my embarrassment, I have often chosen to forgo sightseeing and museum visits, so I could stay in bed writing. It’s the illicit quality of it that appeals to me. No writing is as satisfying as the kind that makes one feel that one is doing something the world disapproves of.
Charles Simic, My Secret
Charles Simic, When Movies Kept Us Awake at Night

It has always seemed strange to me that writers and poets of my generation and slightly older say little about the influence of movies on their work, and yet our first knowledge of the world came from them. Thanks to the movies, we got acquainted with New York, Paris, London and scores of other cities and countries for the first time. We fought in hundreds of wars, clashed swords with Roman legions and Medieval knights, boxed in a ring, faced off with knives in dark alleys, escaped from orphanages, prisons, and chain gangs, met ghosts and visitors from outer space, had ourselves hung by the neck, executed by firing squads, pardoned at the last minute from the guillotine and the electric chair. We danced with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, consorted in after hours gambling joints with gangsters and their molls, smoked opium in Hong Kong, worked as spies, private detectives, and cowboys, ran from Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and Hitler, hunted for tigers and buffalos, explored jungles, deserts, and arctic wasteland. All this was between running errands for our mothers and grandmothers, doing our homework, and playing and fighting in the street with other kids from our neighborhood.

Charles Simic, When Movies Kept Us Awake at Night

It has always seemed strange to me that writers and poets of my generation and slightly older say little about the influence of movies on their work, and yet our first knowledge of the world came from them. Thanks to the movies, we got acquainted with New York, Paris, London and scores of other cities and countries for the first time. We fought in hundreds of wars, clashed swords with Roman legions and Medieval knights, boxed in a ring, faced off with knives in dark alleys, escaped from orphanages, prisons, and chain gangs, met ghosts and visitors from outer space, had ourselves hung by the neck, executed by firing squads, pardoned at the last minute from the guillotine and the electric chair. We danced with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, consorted in after hours gambling joints with gangsters and their molls, smoked opium in Hong Kong, worked as spies, private detectives, and cowboys, ran from Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and Hitler, hunted for tigers and buffalos, explored jungles, deserts, and arctic wasteland. All this was between running errands for our mothers and grandmothers, doing our homework, and playing and fighting in the street with other kids from our neighborhood.

Solitude (I)

I was nearly killed here, one night in February.
My car shivered, and slewed sideways on the ice,
right across into the other lane. The slur of traffic
came at me with their lights.

My name, my girls, my job, all
slipped free and were left behind, smaller and smaller,
further and further away. I was nobody:
a boy in a playground, suddenly surrounded.

The headlights of the oncoming cars
bore down on me as I wrestled the wheel through a slick
of terror, clear and slippery as egg-white.
The seconds grew and grew—making more room for me—
stretching huge as hospitals.

I almost felt that I could rest
and take a breath
before the crash.

Then something caught: some helpful sand
or a well-timed gust of wind. The car
snapped out of it, swinging back across the road.
A signpost shot up and cracked, with a sharp clang,
spinning away in the darkness.

And it was still. I sat back in my seat belt
and watched someone tramp through the whirling snow
to see what was left of me.

—Tomas Tranströmer (English version by Robin Robertson)

Filippic by Mark Lilla

A poem for the Brooklyn Book Festival

The F train
Is the brain train.

iPad lasciate,Voi ch’intrate,
Eve’s backlit apple,
Gold ‘n delicious,
Tempts us not.
We have spines to break,
Penguins to tame.

Thou user!
Thou blue of tooth!
Thou faceless face,
That hath no book!

@ us, towns talk & captions contest
While black-rimmed dandies
Wink at the straphangers
Who grin at the infinite jest.

But banished shalt thou be
Back into space,
No means of return,
No options, commands, or escape,

While we, the Brooklyn d’élite,
Knuckles bared, planted feet,
Bend dead trees at will
And inspect our kill.

Recycle that, battery boy.
I got your charger right here.

Photo by Travis Ruse: F Train, Smith & 9th Street, 6:35pm

Filippic by Mark Lilla

A poem for the Brooklyn Book Festival

The F train
Is the brain train.

iPad lasciate,
Voi ch’intrate,
Eve’s backlit apple,
Gold ‘n delicious,
Tempts us not.
We have spines to break,
Penguins to tame.

Thou user!
Thou blue of tooth!
Thou faceless face,
That hath no book!

@ us, towns talk & captions contest
While black-rimmed dandies
Wink at the straphangers
Who grin at the infinite jest.

But banished shalt thou be
Back into space,
No means of return,
No options, commands, or escape,

While we, the Brooklyn d’élite,
Knuckles bared, planted feet,
Bend dead trees at will
And inspect our kill.

Recycle that, battery boy.
I got your charger right here.

Photo by Travis Ruse: F Train, Smith & 9th Street, 6:35pm