Monday, July 23, 2007

Sometimes, as a teacher, I feel like one of those honeybees who come back to the hive and do a little funky dance that tells the rest of the clan where the nectar is.

Lately, I have been browsing the Michigan Quarterly Review’s site where every issue since their first in 1962 has been archived. There’s a whole lot of nectar there. You can read every word of every issue, from Saul Bellow’s essay, “Where Do We Go from Here: The Future of Fiction” in their first issue, to works by Yevtushenko, C. K. Williams, Charles Simic, and Joyce Carol Oates in 1997, or more recent issues, including Winter 2007, with work by Nicholas Delbanco, Charles Baxter, and an interview with Arthur Miller.

Here’s the URL:

This site seems to me to be the model for how a print magazine can best offer itself to readers and researchers, i.e. for free, and in celebration of its own inclusive aesthetic.

Along these lines, Ploughshares has been busy archiving the equally fine work of its past issues at

Not since the episode of The Twilight Zone where Burgess Meredith survives a nuclear blast and has all the books of the world to himself has a reader’s fantasy so emphatically come true! Careful you don’t drop your glasses…

Anyway, that's the buzz. (Sorry.)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

All depends on the skin.

All depends on the skin you’re living in.

All depends on the skin.

Sekou Sundiata: 1948 -- 2007

July 21, 2007 — NEW YORK

Sekou Sundiata, a poet and performance artist whose work explored slavery, subjugation, and the tension between personal and national identity, especially as they inform the black experience in America, died Wednesday in Valhalla, N.Y. He was 58 and lived in Brooklyn.

The cause was heart failure, said his producer, Ann Rosenthal. At his death, Mr. Sundiata was a professor in the writing program of Eugene Lang College of New School University.

Mr. Sundiata's art, which defied easy classification, ranged from poems performed in the style of an oral epic to musical, dance and dramatic works infused with jazz, blues, funk, and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. In general, as he once said in a television interview, it entailed "the whole idea of text and noise, cadences and pauses."

His work was performed widely throughout the United States and abroad, staged by distinguished organizations like the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Spoleto Festival U.S.A.

Among Mr. Sundiata's most recent works was "the 51st (dream) state," an interlaced tapestry of poetry, music, dance, and videotaped interviews that explores what it means to be an American in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Mr. Sundiata was born Robert Franklin Feaster in Harlem on Aug. 22, 1948; he adopted the African name Sekou Sundiata in the late 1960s. He earned a bachelor's degree in English from City College of New York in 1972 and a master's degree in creative writing from the City University of New York in 1979.

Mr. Sundiata, who performed with the folk rock artist Ani DiFranco as part of her "Rhythm and News" tour in 2001, released several CDs of music and poetry, including "The Blue Oneness of Dreams" and "longstoryshort." His work was also featured on television, on the HBO series "Def Poetry" and the PBS series "The Language of Life."

© 2007, Chicago Tribune

Here is Sundiata’s page at the Academy of American Poets:

And here is the poet performing his “Bring On the Reparations”:

This is an NPR interview with the poet:

And, finally, Bill Moyers’ blog has a great clip of Sundiata performing:

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Philip Booth, a Shy Poet Rooted in New England Life, Dead at 81

by Roja Heydarpour

Philip Booth, a poet known for his explorations of existence and New England in an intense, sparse style, died on July 2 in Hanover, N.H. He was 81 and had split his time between Hanover and Castine, Me., for many years.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said his daughter Carol Booth.

Mr. Booth wrote 10 books of poetry, including “The Islanders,” “Weathers and Edges,” “Letter From a Distant Land” and “Lifelines: Selected Poems 1950-1999.” He also wrote a book of essays about writing poetry called “Trying to Say It: Outlooks and Insights on How Poems Happen.” He received recognition and honors from many institutions, including Guggenheim, Rockefeller and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.

The sense of privacy that made poetry lovers appreciate Mr. Booth’s work ultimately cost him fame. He spent hours upon hours writing and revising in his room, Ms. Booth said, drawing material from deeper and deeper within his emotional landscape. He rarely traveled on book tours or did readings for large groups.

Stephen Dunn, a former student of Mr. Booth’s and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, wrote in an e-mail message after Mr. Booth’s death, “Booth’s quest was to deepen as opposed to range widely, and in that sense he was a poet of consciousness, even when his subject seemed to be the dailiness of Castine or the vagaries of sailing.”

Philip Edmund Booth was born in Hanover and spent most of his life there and in Castine, the city where his mother grew up and where he first learned to sail. He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II and married Margaret Tillman in 1946.

In addition to his wife, of Hanover, and his daughter Carol, of Amherst, Mass., Mr. Booth is survived by two other daughters, Margot, of Austin, Tex., and Robin, of Rowe, Mass.; and a sister, Lee Klunder, of Hartland, Vt.

He received his bachelor’s degree in English at Dartmouth, where he studied under Robert Frost, and a master’s degree in English at Columbia University. He later taught English at Bowdoin College and Wellesley College in the 1950s but spent the majority of his career at Syracuse University, where he was a professor, a poet in residence and a co-founder of the graduate program in creative writing.

In a poem called “First Lesson,” Mr. Booth wrote to a daughter:

As you float now, where I held you

and let go, remember when fear

cramps your heart what I told you:

lie gently and wide to the light-year

stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.


Here is the entire poem quoted in the obit:


Lie back daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man's float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.


Where am I going? I'm going
out, out for a walk. I don't
know where except outside.
Outside argument, out beyond
wallpapered walls, outside
wherever it is where nobody
ever imagines. Beyond where
computers circumvent emotion,
where somebody shorted specs
for rivets for airframes on
today's flights. I'm taking off
on my own two feet. I'm going
to clear my head, to watch
mares'-tails instead of TV,
to listen to trees and silence,
to see if I can still breathe.
I'm going to be alone with
myself, to feel how it feels
to embrace what my feet
tell my head, what wind says
in my good ear. I mean to let
myself be embraced, to let go
feeling so centripetally old.
Do I know where I'm going?
I don't. How long or far
I have no idea. No map. I
said I was going to take
a walk. When I'll be back
I'm not going to say.


And here is a poem heartbreaking in its irony, given Booth’s death from Alzheimer’s. Perhaps it was written when Booth first suspected the onset of his dementia?


Like a woman
I loved, I say
words to the dark,
not to suffer.
Grown as I am,
I'm far from
immune: if I'm
in for it long
I want mind to
hold on, words in
my throat ready
to name it. Let
me keep fury
to stay against
pain; if it
is given me
to learn I mean
to know it all
the way, to bear
it like a woman.


Russell Astley’s critical essay on Booth in Patricia Eakin’s fine, now-defunct magazine, Frigate:

Booth’s page at The Academy of American Poets site:

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

For a couple of years during my twenties I carried a certain book with me nearly everywhere I went: The Orphic Voice by Elizabeth Sewell. I have no idea how I came to have it (I am an inveterate browser and believer in the serendipity of bookstores, especially sprawling used bookstores, and even then I am always drawn to the piles of books on tables that the staff has not yet had time to shelve) but it seemed to bless me. It seemed to say to me, as I read slowly, often only a paragraph or two at a time, that poetry was as important as I felt it to be, that making poems was tapping into something, a deep knowledge that, with skill, could be accessed, embodied and communicated, and that as a mode of discovery, it was as valuable as its more privileged sibling, science.

In fact, that’s not really what Sewell has to say in The Orphic Voice. Tracing the split between Science and Poetry to Francis Bacon, she argues that they are the same inquiry, carried out by the same human consciousness. We are in error if we fall into the “two cultures” trap. She traces that error to the fact that Bacon, as she writes, “was a poet who did not trust poetry.” Early in the book she cites an experiment in which scientists were asked to describe what poets do, and poets to describe what scientists are after. Of course neither recognized itself in the description of the other, although both thrilled to a common description of the work of discovering how the world might be ordered, how that order might be represented, and how that system of representation is itself a process of ordering. Orpheus sings the creation into a dynamic order. Linnaeus the first taxonomer writes his book in verse. The world is the product of similarities and differences, resemblances, metaphor. So is language, its mirror and mythology.

I can only scratch the surface here, and I only mean to recommend the book to anyone who suspects that poetry has an existential, organic function in the workings of consciousness.

Interestingly enough, Sewell herself was a political poet, and not only on occasion. She was active in the civil rights movement and wrote a powerful elegy for murdered activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. I was an undergraduate at Fordham University when she was there presiding over Bensalem, the Experimental College, founded in 1967, but I had no idea about her at all. Bensalem was in an apartment building across the street from the Rose Hill campus, and I often went there for political meetings or to drink red wine and get high. I was two or three years out of college when I came upon her book, and I don’t think I even made the connection to the bent and somewhat frail woman I sometimes saw on campus.

But enough: here are some excerpts from The Orphic Voice (long out of print, but still possible to track down at your local used bookstore perhaps, or else at a good academic library):

It is of the nature of mind and language together, that they form an instrument capable of an indefinite number of developments. It matters very little whether the particular devisors or users of the instrument saw, at the point in time when they flourished, its full implications.

We always say more than we know. This is one of the reasons for language's apparent imprecision. It is no reason for refusing language our confidence.


Modern thought supposes that human beings are capable of two sorts of thinking, the logical and the imaginative. We are endowed with the faculties of intellect and imagination — allied, since both are mental, but distinct in their methods and fields of operation. The intellect is the "mind," properly so-called, and its essential function is abstract and logical thought. The imagination is more closely knit with the body (witness its habit, in myth, of expressing all concepts in terms of bodies, of embodying its ideas, in fact, and the close connection of myth with rite or bodily action), and it operates in the more primitive forms of dreams, myth, ritual, and art.

Science and poetry, mathematics and words, intellect and imagination, mind and body: they are old, they are perfected and tidy, they are mistaken. If we can dispose of these recurring antitheses which the last 400 years have, with the best of intentions, bequeathed us, we can turn to bequests made on our behalf by other ancestors, for they are there and ready to help. We have given ourselves credit, as human beings, for rather more and rather less than we possess. The human organism, that body which has the gift of thought, does not have the choice of two kinds of thinking. It has only one, in which the organism as a whole is engaged all along the line. There has been no progression in history from one type of thought to another. We are merely learning to use what we have been given, which is all of a piece. This means too that we have to admit and affirm our solidarity with the thinking of the child and the savage. All thinking is of the same kind, and it is this we have to try to understand and to exercise.


In its beginnings, language is acknowledged by scholars to have been essentially figurative, imaginative, synthesizing, and mythological rather than analytical and logical. Schelling, for instance, says, “Is it not evident that there is poetry in the actual material formation of languages?” and other writers have said the same. Myth and metaphor, living instruments of a lively speech, are not ornaments and artifices tacked on to language but something in the stuff of language and hence of the mind itself. Language is poetry, and a poem is only the resources of language used to the full.

We have come to believe, however, that there is another kind of language, not figurative but literal or logical. It is widely accepted that with advancing civilization comes a progress from imaginative and mythological and poetic turns of speech toward the logical, precise, nonfigurative. Within our own culture, philosophers, logicians, and scientists seem to have striven for this for nearly 400 years, anxious to purify language, in the name of precision, from this very element of unclearness we have glimpsed already, from myth, metaphor, and poetry. Analytical thinking — logic and mathematics, in unison — has been set up as the model to which word-thought was to conform. Recent endeavors to develop languages which are mathematical structures of propositions are the outcome. This is a language-as-science, in its more or less extreme form.


The nature of language has been much studied. So has its history. We're after something else: not nature or history but something nearer what we mean by natural history, a dynamic inquiry into process, a natural history of mind and language. Language is to be conceived of not as an entity but as an activity; not in itself, for one must always avoid the metaphor of saying that language is alive, but in conjunction with a mind, with numbers and series of minds in time. Language utterances become events in this kind of thinking. Every poem and recounted myth and scientific hypothesis and theological statement and theory of politics or history and every philosophy become records of happenings at particular times, all of which, if they have any life in them at all, have the capacity to be taken further, in varying degrees, by other minds present and to come. This means giving up the right to abstract language into timeless pattern, and making the effort to grasp it not as a fixed phenomenon but as a moving event, language plus mind, subject to time and process and change — to try to think in biological terms, perhaps.

To further whet your appetite, here is the book’s Contents page:


Part I Introduction

Part II Bacon and Shakespeare: Postlogical Thinking

Part III Erasmus Darwin and Goethe: Linnaean and Ovidian Taxonomy

Part IV Wordsworth and Rilke: Toward a Biology of Thinking

Part V Working Poems for The Orphic Voice




And so. Read The Orphic Voice. Go slowly. Think. Reflect. You may find there an old well-spring satisfying to your thirst.

Here is a link to some of Sewell’s poems:

And here is a reminiscence of Sewell which was published as an obituary. There’s a lot of mention of the philosopher Michael Polanyi in it. The Orphic Voice is dedicated to him:

On Reuniting Poetry and Science: A Memoir of Elizabeth Sewell, 1919-2001
David Schenck and Phil Mullins

(This essay is an obituary notice for Elizabeth Sewell, a long-time friend of Michael Polanyi and a well-known poet, novelist and critic.)

Elizabeth Sewell, internationally known poet, critic, novelist, and friend of Michael Polanyi died January 12, 2001, in Greensboro NC. She was 81. Sewell was born in India in 1919 of English parents and educated in England, taking her B.A. in Modern Languages from Cambridge University in 1942. She performed war service in the Ministry of Education in London from 1942-45, and then returned to Cambridge to complete her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees, also in Modern Languages. Sewell received from her family background and classical education a familiaritywith English literature, history, liturgy, and style that marked her entire life's work. She came to the UnitedStates in 1949, just after completing her graduate work. After many years of trans-Atlantic commuting, she became an American citizen in 1973.

Some readers will recall that Sewell was a participant in the 1991 Kent State Polanyi Centennial Conference where she enchanted the audience by reading a lengthy poem. She was delighted by the Kent State meeting where she renewed old friendships (some other earlier Polanyi-related conferences at Bowdoin and Dayton that she attended she reported were not so pleasant). After this 1991 gathering, she prepared and deposited in the University of Chicago Polanyi archives a 44 page memoir that comments on the ways in which Michael Polanyi's friendship contributed to her work as a poet. Becoming acquainted with Polanyi was altogether serendipity: Sewell met Magda Polanyi in thesummer of 1954 at an international conference at Alpback in Austria, where she was running a seminar on the modern European novel. Magda and John Polanyi showed up the first day in her seminar; although Mrs. Polanyi did not take the seminar, she one day invited Sewell to join her for conversation in a local cafe. Sewell described herself to Mrs. Polanyi as a poet who had woven together mathematics, logic, physics and poetry; she was now beginning to explore the connection between poetry and natural history and was soon to depart for a year at Fordham University. By chance, Sewell reports that she made a comment that ultimately led to her coming to Manchester University on a fellowship from 1955-57 and to her friendship with Michael Polanyi: “But as I look back I have a funny sense that I uttered a key word somewhere along the line,and that word was crystallography. Magda in response uttered two key words, keys to my life though neither of us knew that at the time. She said, "You must meet my husband," and "You must apply for a Simon Fellowship at Manchester University.”

Sewell applied for the Simon Fellowship after her year in New York and, with strong support from Michael Polanyi, received the award, although a poet had never previously been awarded this fellowship. She came toManchester, a city that she grew to love, in 1955, and eventually became a frequent guest at the Polanyi household. She was formally attached to the Philosophy Department and this was an uneasy marriage that contributed to her link to the Polanyi family. In Manchester, Sewell began work on The Orphic Voice, a work that was dedicated to Michael Polanyi and her most popular book in North America. Clearly, Sewell found in Polanyi's interests and his writing a kindred spirit. She describes her joy in first reading Science, Faith and Society: at finding “an unimpeachable scientific voice so friendly, as it seemed to me, to what I wasgroping after in this second attempt on my part to reunite the disciplines of science and poetry as I had tried to do with my first book, The Structure of Poetry, originally my dissertation which had aroused so much antagonism, at college and university level, atCambridge, that amnesiac place since poetry and science are its two great glories which it now determines to keep in total separation each from each.”

Sewell was in Manchester in the years just prior to the publication of Personal Knowledge. She is identified in the "Acknowledgments" as one of four people who read the whole manuscript and suggested improvements. In her memoir, she describes the process of reading and responding to several chapters of the manuscript. She was particularly appreciative of "Intellectual Passions," which she found aptly described her work as a poet: “Intellectual Passion was Michael's subject-matter but also that which he embodied superbly and communicated to us, and when my own work suddenly and decisively found its own method and metaphor, that kind of passion, known to me since my first such experience at Cambridge and then resting awhile as one pursued other paths, returned with vehemence, indeed almost one might say, obsession.”

Sewell was a visiting writer or professor at many colleges and universities in the United States including, in addition to Fordham, Vassar, Princeton, Bennett, California State, Tugaloo, Central Washington State, Hunter, California at Irvine, Trent, Notre Dame, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, LehighUniversity, Converse College, and University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She received honorarydegrees from many colleges and universities including Fordham University (1968) and the University ofNotre Dame (1984). In addition to the Simon Fellowship at Manchester University (1955-57), Sewell also held the Howard Research Fellowship at Ohio State University (1949-50), and was an Ashley Fellow at Trent University (1979), and a Presidential Scholar at Mercer University (1982). Sewell's major works include criticism —The Structure of Poetry (1951, l963), Paul Valéry: TheMind in the Mirror (1952), The Field of Nonsense (1952), The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History(1960, 1972), and The Human Metaphor (1964); novels —The Dividing of Time (1952), The Singular Hope (1955), Now Bless Thyself (1962), and The Unlooked-For (1995); poetry-Poems, 1947-1961 (1962), Signs and Cities (1968), and Acquist (1984); essays — To Be a True Poem (1979); and a memoir — An Idea(1983).

In addition to these volumes, Sewell published dozens of short stories, essays, articles and poems in periodicals in the United States, Canada, England, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria and Russia. At her death, she left completed manuscripts on William Blake, and on the French reception of Lewis Carroll. Left incomplete was a translation and commentary project on Giordano Bruno and the Renaissance tradition of high magic. Her papers are on deposit with the Department of Special Collections of the Mugar Memorial Library at Boston University.

Phil Mullins ( has been the editor of Tradition and Discovery since 1991. He tried on more than one occasion to get Elizabeth Sewell to publish something in TAD.

David Schenck was a friend of Elizabeth Sewell. He studied with Ruel Tyson and did a dissertation directed by Bill Poteat.


And then I checked my email and this poem arrived from Poetry International, a poem that speaks to this very subject (if it is a “subject”) — I told you I believe in serendipity!


No, it is not the intonation
It is not the rhythm
Not even the meaning.
It is the word by itself
And who would ever care about
What the poet says?

What matters is the ritual
The metaphor of what we’ve always been
The memory of the first vocal sound
“the secret language of the birds
of the first day”

Today’s man is out of tune
He has forgotten the words.
Someone stammers something
And everyone arrives, it’s the ritual
The transition
the substitution,
The endless metaphor
What strange analogy is man?

The poet says nothing
But a living being comes out of his throat
Invisible, having only sound
And an ancient music.
We remember then the original sound
The first sound in the world
When the word became blood
And collective food.

With time came verses
But the birds no longer cared about it
The poet speaks, sings or prays
And wants to name the world
In all forms.
He invokes the spirits
And calls the other
“I will people myself with voices,” he says,
and turns to his metaphor which is of fire.

But the word keeps silent
The word is the grandfather of the species
The word is sense
It is power and walking stick.

© Álvaro Marín
© Translation: 2007, Nicolás Suescún

Poem of the Week:

Álvaro Marín’s page: