'The Poets Laureate Anthology': Another Salvo in the War Against Irrelevance

Temenos #8: The Poet (partial) by © Gregory Eanes used with permission. See more of Gregory Eanes' work here.

Anthologies such as this are a movement, or a moment, a force of expression that seeks to take up more space -- literally and figuratively -- than the book of one individual might.

The Poets Laureate Anthology

Price: $39.95
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Length: 762 pages
Editor: Elizabeth Hun Schmidt, Billy Collins (contributor)
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-10

Beyond its more minor themes, modern American poetry is, first and foremost, about itself. This has become the case most clearly over the past three decades, as M.F.A. programs have proliferated at the same time that the public role of poetry has grown ever more obscure and, seemingly, irrelevant. Some poets see this as a problem to be solved, while others relish the marginalization and seek out even more remote, theoretical spaces. In either case, the question of poetry’s place in America directly informs its production.

Whether pushing toward or against the mainstream, in no time before have so many voices echoed in such a confined cultural space. Put simply, poetry in America constitutes an intellectual ghetto. That’s not to say that the collective imagination of American poetry is restricted in any way. On the contrary, one could easily make the case that the rise of graduate poetry programs has given rise to the most vital collection of writers in the country’s history. At the same time, though, the audience for these diverse and accomplished works is inversely proportionate. In this shrinking space of popular attention, some see a rarified and beautiful community and are content to wander among its exclusive architecture. Others shout from its rooftops, hoping that passersby will take notice.

“Whither poetry?” then, is a question that bedevils its American practitioners, just as the answer eludes its students. A popular strategy, when it comes to asserting the breadth and scope of poets and their work, is the anthology. These tomes, whose very size and weight seem designed to impress upon the reader an air of authority, can be understood as salvos in the war against irrelevance. They gather in their pages a group of writers who -- under some thematic or chronological umbrella -- achieve an impression beyond the sum of their individual work. They are a movement, or a moment, a force of expression that seeks take up more space -- literally and figuratively -- than the book of one individual might.

Of course, anthologies, by definition, are always also exercises in exclusion. Debates about who gets represented, who’s left out, even how many pages are awarded to whom fill various blogs and journals on the heels of any anthology’s release. Such wrangling is part of what ensures a vital community of practitioners, a reflection of passion and rigor that, at the same time, can strike a reader as merely the echo of shouting, fervent cries that are all-too diminished by their distance from center.

Luckily for The Poets Laureate Anthology, such noises, however faint, are unlikely to attend its release. That’s because all the exclusionary work has been done for the editor Elizabeth Hun Schmidt already. The book collects a selection of poetry from every Poet Laureate America has ever known, from its current, W.S. Merwin, to its first, Joseph Auslander. Auslander, we learn in Schmidt’s introduction, was initially the “poetry chair” in 1937, and then more officially the “consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress” two years later. (Congress voted in 1986 to call the post the “poet laureate consultant in poetry.”) He was appointed by the Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, who modeled the position on England’s version.

Such an honor was not without its anxieties. Despite the promise of a cask of wine, poets such as Wordsworth and Thomas Gray expressed hesitation at being brought into the sphere of politics, that arena where language goes to be tortured, maimed, and eventually murdered. Perhaps for that reason, the American post carries with it only the vaguest of duties. Beyond an annual reading and lecture, the poets laureate are free, as former laureate Billy Collins puts it in his foreword, “to sit behind his desk and practice the art of Sudoku.”

Tea partiers: you can put down your phone. The post carries only a nominal stipend; most poets choose (or have) to maintain their day jobs. Still, the position of poet laureate is unique in that it’s the only official post in the United States for an artist. This, then, leads us back to the larger question of poetry and its role in American society. How might such a weighty government post be reconciled with the size of its national readership?

Schmidt, wisely, avoids this thorny question in her introduction, choosing to yield the floor, as all good editors must, to the writers themselves. For each poet, the anthology begins with a passage or quotation of the writer’s reflection on the role or purpose of poetry, followed by a succinct biography that often touches on the work accomplished by the poet in their tenure as a laureate. Quickly enough, we are given the poems, and in reverse chronological order. The choice to list the poets from the current to the first is both subtle and successful, impressing upon the reader a sense of the lineage of these writers as they document the passage of history.

As for the selections themselves, readers will also be satisfied. Enough “hits” are included to account for a representative showing: Lowell’s “Skunk Hour”, Bishop’s “The Fish”, Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”, Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”, and so on. Both in structure and in content, then, The Poets Laureate Anthology is a welcome addition to the record of poetry in America.

Appropriately enough, this review arrives in April: National Poetry Month. Of course, nothing confirms obscurity so much as a National Anything Month, but this book is a worthy effort in the ongoing struggle to garner the attention that an official government post suggests that poetry deserves. If nothing else, readers will come to better understand the legacy of the collected talent of these men and women, those who have paid through their words supreme attention to their world. This anthology makes the convincing case that we, in turn, owe them such attention in kind.


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60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

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"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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