Criticism

The Critical Flame:: Stones of Witness: On Carolyn Forche’s In the Lateness of the World

Seeing here is not just about recording the atrocities of war. If that was what Gómez Vides wanted, he would have approached a photojournalist instead. The question is not just what we see but also how we see. To paraphrase Yeats, if we want to make a political argument, we turn to rhetoric; if we want to engage deeply with the ways our lives are marked by extremity, we make poetry. Forché bears witness to the ways war and exile shape our private and intimate lives, our individual consciousness.

The Writer’s Chronicle:: “Love You I Must”: Dudley Randall and the Ballade Tradition (Print)

In the Occitan tradition, the ballade was used mainly for love poems, especially that of courtly love, a literary fiction created to amuse the aristocracy. In English, which has far fewer rhymes than French or Occitan, the ballade is more difficult to write. There is scant tradition of ballades in English and they tend to be about lighter subjects. “The Southern Road” is among the first, if not the only, English ballades that wrestle with social issues. But the ballade is not the most obvious form, culturally or thematically, that Randall could have used for this poem.

The Dark Horse:: Measuring a Void: On Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night” (Print)

Beneath this gloss of perfection, though, is a sense of anxiety and disorder that culminates in an acute terror. How does Frost create such disquiet from an apparent order? It lies not so much in what the poem says, but rather in what it does with form and syntax.

Tin House:: Lost and Found: Diane Gilliam Fisher’s Kettle Bottom (Print)

Kettle Bottom chronicles this history from the points of view of the miners and their families. Each poem channels a different persona, such as the wives who scrub coal dust from their husbands’ coveralls; the woman who advises her sister Hazel not to marry an alcoholic miner… Some characters recur in the book while others appear once or twice. Some characters are named while others remain anonymous. Through these voices, we feel the private pain of this history.

Open Letters Monthly:: Six Lyric Voices of Witness

The poet Lucille Clifton says, “What the poet does, ideally, is to talk about the history of the inside of people so that history is more than just the appearance of things.” A number of contemporary poets engage with forgotten histories or suppressed perspectives. In America, this includes the legacies of lynching and slavery, labor and Indian massacres in the frontier West, the influenza pandemic, and the Japanese internment during World War II. These poems insist that we remember the past, even and especially when it implicates us, and reckon with our individual and collective psyches. 

Open Letters Monthly:: Beyond Thought: On Clarice Lispector

Lispector’s work is often described as philosophical, though she depends less on the logic of argument than the associations of images and emotions. She conveys G.H.’s crisis by discussing, among other things, the desert, which she likens to her soul, and salt, which is the taste of intimacy. She is less concerned with plot and setting and writes instead from the body. She rarely depicts sex, but her language is erotic, which is to say, it stems from a primeval impulse. As G.H. says, “Because a world fully alive has the power of a Hell.” 

Open Letters Monthly:: An Unfolding Elegy: On Jake Adam York

The elegies are the centerpiece of York’s poetry. He also wrote about music, in particular the murder ballads of the Louvin Brothers and the jazz of John Coltrane and Sun Ra. He wrote about his grandmother’s southern cooking and his love of whiskey and barbecue. For York, we relate to one another in music and food. We create memories and a sense of belonging. In this light, the elegies are not just for the Civil Rights martyrs but also for our best selves: the selves we subsume to the demands of power and privilege.

Open Letters Monthly:: Truth be Told: On Natasha Trethewey

When Trethewey boarded the boat for Ship Island she journeyed not just to a place but into a history. For her, history is not just about the literal truth. It is instead where individual lives intersect with the forces of culture. In writing poetry, she can use metaphors and associations to recreate the emotional terrain of the past. Where definitive facts are lost or misguided, she can draw on her research and experiences to imagine what may have happened. She ultimately argues that history is subjective and the truth dependent on our personal lenses and biases.