January 7, 2017
“September 1, 1939” is one of the most famous poems by W. H. Auden. He wrote the poem after learning the news of Hitler’s invasion of Poland at the start of World War II, published it a month later in The New Republic magazine, and reprinted it in his collection, Another Time, the following year.
Despite – or perhaps because of — rushing it into print, Auden appeared to dislike the poem almost as soon as it was published. As little as five years later, reprinting the poem in The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden (1945), he cut the stanza with its most famous line, “We must love one another or die.”
“Between you and me, I loathe that poem,” he wrote to the critic Laurence Lerner, and resolved to keep it out of future collections of his work during his lifetime. He relented in 1955, allowing Oscar Williams to include it in his New Pocket Anthology of American Verse, but only with the proviso that the last line be edited to “We must love one another and die.”
Why did he hate this line – and the poem — so much? He claimed in a preface to the 1965 edition of his Collected Poems, “Some poems which I wrote and, unfortunately, published, I have thrown out because they were dishonest, or bad-mannered, or boring.”
In a Penguin anthology the previous year, the poem and four others were included along with a caveat: “Mr. W. H. Auden considers these five poems to be trash which he is ashamed to have written.”
What was it about the poem and, in particular, this line that Auden didn’t like? Was he embarrassed by its earnestness and sentiment, as some have suggested? Did he feel it was sappy and self-indulgent, as others would have it? Or was it “the most dishonest poem I have ever written,” as he put it?
And yet, the last line endures and the poem remains one of Auden’s most famous, surviving even today as one of the most eloquent pleas for empathy and peace in the face of totalitarianism. The poem even resurfaced as a touchstone for people in the wake of 9/11, as I have written elsewhere.
Here is my poem, “Villanelle on a Line Hated by Auden”:
“We must love one another or die,”
The poet instructs, though doesn’t believe it.
“We must love one another and die.”
Revised to inclusive and on another try,
Then repudiated the poem, banning it.
He who must love another or die.
“Ours is not to reason why,”
Another poet said with the soul of wit.
Ours is to love one another. We die.
Changing a word makes meaning fly
To the far reaches of our minds and sit.
Must we, really, love one another or die?
Can we exist without knowing why–
Knowledge straining at the bit–
Until we can only love each other and die?
When we live without love, we die.
At least, those of us who desire it.
We must love one another or die.
We must love one another and die.
–Scott Edward Anderson
April 29, 2016
For the fifth and final week of National Poetry Month this year, I’m featuring one of my own poem, “Villanesca.”
This poem was published last summer in Cimarron Review, thanks to poet Alfred Corn, who chose the poem in his role as a contributing editor.
Alfred also provided some critical guidance to help me finish this poem, which I’d been working on for several years. The poem sprang from a conversation overheard between my friend and colleague, Jan Almquist, and his daughter on the train to DC a decade ago.
We were traveling down to pitch the design of The Nature Conservancy’s Annual Report when Jan got a call from his then teenage daughter about leaving her score for Enrique Granados’s “Spanish Dances,” at home and asking him to bring it to her. That was all I needed to prompt the poem, although it obviously went in a different direction.
Sometime later, after boarding a plane, I found a program of Granados on the audio channel featuring the fabulous interpretations of De Larrocha. Obviously, I had to get that into the poem somehow and it helped build another layer.
As mentioned in last week’s post, I shared this poem with poet A.V. Christie a few months before her death. I was very touched by her response to the poem. She wrote, “I love the tone of this poem & the subtle/textured types of communication it’s built up out of…I experience it…it’s so active & in motion…”
Here is my poem, “Villanesca,”
Before the cabin door shuts, I check messages.
You forgot your score for “Spanish Dances” on the piano,
left open at the “Villanesca,” a piece with pastoral repetitions
you found hard to reproduce. Your rough interpretation
reminds me of your voice and its effect (or its affect).
Headphones on, I listen to Alicia de Larrocha
performing Granados. The program host has a soothing lisp,
enunciating every syl – la – ble, like a reporter on NPR.
Quoting from a review, she says De Larrocha’s playing speaks
to “a glorious inevitability achieved through immense discipline.”
“Can you bring the score to my rehearsal?” you ask
via voice mail, forgetting my flight this afternoon.
Unlike De Larrocha you always forget the score,
ignore signals, struggle to find the right notes, refuse
to face the music of our own inglorious inevitability.
I press delete, choosing not to repeat past mistakes;
at least, for the duration of my flight.
–Scott Edward Anderson
January 10, 2016
“I never read my reviews,” the novelist Pat Conroy once said. “Not even the good ones. Barbra Streisand once told me, if just one person in the audience doesn’t applaud, it bothers her. I’m the same way. I’d be devastated to read that someone didn’t like my work.”
Back in 2001, a young woman named Veronika Linhartova Morley, then a student at De Anza College in Cupertino, California, contacted me by email. She wanted to write about my poetry for a class assignment on contemporary American poets.
She told me she’d read a poem of mine called “Carpentry” in the Boston Review and had found a number of other poems on line. I was flattered. Only, I never wrote a poem with that title and I’ve not yet published in the Boston Review. I looked up the poem, which was written by a Scott Anderson (see the link above) and thought, I could have written it, but I didn’t.
I hated to disappoint Ms. Morley, but broke the news to her by reply email. She was embarrassed; however, it turned out that all the other poems she’d found were indeed mine, and she still wanted to write about my work. We had a nice correspondence and she wrote a delightful little essay about my poetry and the influence of Elizabeth Bishop and Donald Hall on my work.
Her essay begins with a lengthy quote from a lecture I gave at the University of Alaska some years before:
“The contemporary poet of my choice, Scott Edward Anderson, once wrote in his essay ‘Making Poems Better: The Process of Revision’: ‘…writing poems is a lot like cooking. We bring everything we know about cooking and about what foods go well together to preparing a meal, just as we bring all we’ve learned or read or practiced to writing a poem. Sometimes, it’s just luck that we get the right combination of ingredients, but much of the time a fine meal is made from good ingredients being put together by a well-practiced chef.'”
She went on to make some good observations about my work and points about what I learned from both Bishop and Hall. She also identified a spiritual note in my work and my conflicting feelings about “the way we treat our world.”
In all, it’s a pretty accurate picture of my work, its process and two of my biggest influences. And the last line of her essay would make any poet proud. She writes that through her assignment and correspondence with me, she “not only learned about the process of writing poetry, but also learned to appreciate poetry even more.”
I don’t know how the essay was graded. I still have a copy. Veronika came to this country from Czechoslovakia in the late 1990s, as she told me, to get the kind of education unavailable in her own country. Some time ago, she gave me permission to reprint the essay, which you can read in full here.
January 7, 2016
Twice in my life I wanted to raise sheep. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it is an interest stemming from deep within my Scottish and Portuguese heritage.
The first time, I was as a teenager outside of Rochester, New York. I considered enrolling in the organic agriculture program at Goddard College in Vermont, where I’d learn animal husbandry and then get a piece of land where I could raise a flock. I heard that Canada had a generous homesteader program and wrote to various provincial governments. (I still have a couple of their responses.)
The second time was in 1992, I had just moved to Garrison, New York, into a converted ice house on the old Vanderbilt-Webb estate. I bought Raising Sheep the Modern Way by Paula Simmons and a few other books and looked into buying a few starter sheep from a neighbor. (I still can’t part with my copy of Simmons’s book.)
While my poem, “Deserted Sheep,” which was part of a group of three poems that won the Nebraska Review Award in 1997, was certainly influenced by my experiences in New York’s countryside, thinking about raising sheep, it was a very different landscape that provided the inspiration.
I was walking the hills outside of Giessen, in what was then West Germany, in the spring of 1987, when I stumbled upon the sheepfold described in the poem. The sheep were alone, except for each other, grazing within a small, orange plastic enclosure.
Like many of the poems I wrote at the time, the early drafts were heavily influenced by my attempts to learn the German language through reading its poetry — no easy task. This course of study had a deleterious effect on my writing at the time, as I’ve described elsewhere, and it took me a long time to get my native tongue back to its proper place; not to mention my syntax, grammar, and word order!
By the time I arrived at the version that appeared in the Nebraska Review and, later, in my book Fallow Field, the result was very different, after many stumbles and headlong bumps like those lambs in the poem.
Perhaps one day I will retire to the Azores and raise sheep. Now that my wife, Samantha, has taken up knitting we could use the extra wool and lamb kofta is a favorite dish of ours. Here is my poem,
Lambs, jostled, forgive
the wolf, break
its taste in lamb
into a toddler’s gallop,
into thick-piled ewes–
lanolin slicking their noses, as
they stumble on the fescue
dotting the valley,
a pointillist’s landscape.
No shepherd, no sheep dog,
no gate to enter; a small,
orange plastic snow fence,
neatly staked at four corners
with steel posts,
gives form to the sheepcote.
The last ounce of sun
a violet tremor the wolf
along the western ridge,
the shepherd’s fear
returning to the valley.
A ram, brown and flocculent,
secures a silent corner
of the fold — eyes intent
upon a slow-moving shadow.
–Scott Edward Anderson
August 26, 2015
Frankly, it always seems a waste of time to think about life that way. Last year, however, while I was writing poems in response to weekly prompts as part of the “52” poetry group, I wrote a poem to the prompt, “So Near and Yet…”
If I recall correctly, the idea was to “think about something that nearly happened…” (I can’t verify because the prompts on the 52 site have been removed as its curator/founder Jo Bell compiles them into a book.)
Participating in 52, as I’ve written earlier, took me out of my comfort zone — both in method and subject matter. Several of the poems I wrote that year are more open and honest, at least in a self-referential way, than much of my earlier work. Almost I want to call them confessional.
In part this is because I rarely, if ever, write about myself in my poems. The prompts prompted that, but so did the honest and constructive feedback of the group. I felt safe to explore this other dimension and see where it took my work.
All of this leads me to my poem, “For T—,” which tells the story of an encounter that could have changed my life, but didn’t (or did it?). It’s not an incident about which I’m particularly proud.
And yet, as the material for a poem it worked in a strange way. At least my fellow 52ers felt so, as did the editors of the Yellow Chair Review, who published it in their latest issue.
Here is the poem:
I asked her to dance at a black tie dinner for Literacy.
She said she didn’t dance; I’d have to teach her.
Her friend, sitting next seat over, who later played
Hagrid in the Harry Potter films, cautioned,
“Be gentle with her now or you’ll be answering to me.”
She smiled when I bowed before taking her hand.
She was light on her feet and let me lead.
No one had moved her that way before,
so in control, she whispered in my ear.
And when the dance was over, I bowed again.
She thanked me, asked did I want to come
see her in “Hamlet” on Broadway? I did.
I brought flowers, met her backstage;
she came out with me; later, I put her in a cab.
“Do you fancy coming uptown?”
I demurred, made some excuse.
Perhaps another time, I suggested,
knowing there would be none.
(I’d no business being there in the first:
I was married; unhappily, but still.)
It couldn’t have ended well. No doubt,
we’d divorce after a few violent years.
She moving on to stage and screen;
me, the scapegoat in the press,
spilling popcorn on myself in the house seats.
–Scott Edward Anderson
To read the full Issue #3 of Yellow Chair Review, which has some fantastic poems by other poets from 52 and elsewhere, go here.
And you can read a selection of the poems from the 52 group in this Nine Arches Press book, here.
October 25, 2013
Brooklyn Poets is a great new organization that hosts a reading series, poetry writing classes and workshops, as well as a monthly “YAWP,” which allows poets to try out new work or share old work.
They also produce some of the coolest t-shirts available.
Each week, they feature a Brooklyn-based poet on their website, Brooklyn Poets, including one of their poems and an interview conducted via email.
I was honored to be Brooklyn Poet of the Week for October 14-20, 2013. They featured my poem “Running,” along with a brief explanation about the writing of the poem, and the interview below.
What are you working on right now?
Promoting my new book of poems, FALLOW FIELD. I have a bunch of poems I wrote last April during National Poetry Month that need my attention soon, and another big poem and prose project I put aside some years ago and need to get back to work on. I also have another book of non-fiction that is in proposal development with my agent.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day is spent with the love of my life, Samantha, doing whatever we want, with or without our kids (we have 6 between us), and always involves some poetry, cooking a good meal, drinking some wine, eating chocolate, plenty of coffee, and a whole lotta love. And, these days, exploring Brooklyn, our home.
How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?
I returned to Brooklyn nearly two years ago and live in Park Slope, although I spend part of every week in Philadelphia, where my kids live. I lived in Carroll Gardens and Bay Ridge years ago. I love Park Slope because it feels like a small town and we’re close to the Park. I love city life, but I need to be close to its nature, too.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
Samantha and I got engaged this spring and when we were looking for a venue for our wedding, we stumbled upon the Green Building in Carroll Gardens. It used to be a brass foundry. When she sent me their website to check out, I noticed the building is located on the corner of Union and Bond. What better place for a wedding? It felt like the Brooklyn gods were shining on us.
Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?
Auden, Whitman, Marianne Moore, David Ignatow and Ada Limón. Auden for his variety; Whitman, his YAWP; Moore for her eccentricity; Ignatow for his mundane humor; and Ada for the beauty of her language and vision.
Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?
Greenlight, definitely, for the selection and the layout. Community Bookstore in my hood. Unnameable Books in Prospect Heights, which has a great selection of used poetry books. I’m looking forward to that new poetry-only bookstore, Berl’s. Why? Because we need more bookstores full of poetry. (And the Grolier Bookshop is too far away from Brooklyn.)
Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn?
Prospect Park. I do a lot of my composing in my head, especially while walking. The park is perfect for wandering. Some of the poems I wrote in April when I was writing a poem each day were composed on my iPhone on the 2 or 3 train. As for reading, I love reading in bed to my fiancée; she falls asleep whenever I start reading to her, but I just keep going.
Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?
Prospect Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Sharlene’s on Flatbush (a new favorite), the Farmer’s Market in Grand Army Plaza, Little Neck, the 4th Avenue Pub (an old favorite), and of course 61 Local, which I learned about from the Brooklyn Poets YAWP. Our kitchen is one of my favorite places in Brooklyn. I love cooking in our kitchen. My son Jasper says my meals there are “on point AND on point.”
Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate food,
And what I love to cook you should love to eat,
For every meal I prepare cheers me as good and good for you.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay-Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
My kids got their faith from their fa-ther:
Red Sox fans, not fans of the Dodgers.
Whether living in Alaska, Philly or Brooklyn
And tho’ we show respect when Mo’ comes out the pen,
It’s the “B” and scarlet socks that we’re love-in
And those gold black and white ones once worn by Robby–
Bobby Orr, y’all, to me as a kid he was bigger than Biggie.
When we traded him to Chi’town that was a sin.
Blackhawks didn’t know Bobby and they don’t know Jack.
My love, Samantha, is here and wherever my love is, that’s my home.
Thanks to Jason Koo and Brooklyn Poets for featuring me as Brooklyn Poet of the Week.
September 16, 2013
This fall, the Aldrich Press is publishing my long-awaited new collection of poetry, FALLOW FIELD.
The book consists of 45 poems, representing my best work from the past quarter century.
You can order your signed copy of FALLOW FIELD here:
My poetry has received the Nebraska Review Award and the Aldrich Emerging Poets Award, and I have been a Concordia Fellow at the Millay Colony for the Arts.
My poems have appeared in magazines, literary journals, and anthologies or online, including the American Poetry Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Anon, La Petite Zine, Many Mountains Moving, and Terrain, among other publications.
I am also the author of a book of natural history, Walks in Nature’s Empire, published by The Countryman Press in 1995.
The paperback book is 96 pages, including front and back matter, with a gorgeous cover photograph by my good friend Joshua Sheldon (see picture), which was taken at the same time and has the same origin of inspiration as the title poem. (You can read the poem and its story here: “Fallow Field.”)
Here is what others have said about this collection, FALLOW FIELD:
“Scott Edward Anderson’s poems honor the reality that the things of the world – rye grass, fall warblers, ravens, owls, ‘Sargassum drifting/ in a pelagic wave,’ lovers and sourdough bread – speak to and for our innerness. Here the sense of place is not simply a matter of geography, but of feeling one’s way into that sense of becoming that makes one’s path clear. The book’s fourth section is comprised of poems that beautifully embrace the very human need to join the inner and outer, a territory defined, as the poem titles suggest, by ‘Becoming,’ ‘Shapeshifting,’ ‘Cultivating,’ ‘Mapping,’ and ‘Healing.’ Guided since childhood, as the book’s closing long poem relates, by nature’s teaching, Anderson is devoted to finding the words for what it means to dwell mindfully among others on the wounded earth.”
–Alison Hawthorne Deming, author of Rope: Poems
“I was impressed by Anderson’s engagement with nature — especially the way in which his lyrical lines sketch the profound relationship between humans and their environment.”
– Jonathan Galassi, author of Left-handed: Poems
“Wow, Pop, I had no idea you wrote so many poems!”
– Walker Anderson, the author’s 10-year-old son
My poetry is rooted in nature and grounded in what Robert Hass called the “strong central tradition of free verse made out of both romanticism and modernism, split between the impulses of an inward and psychological writing and an outward and realist one, at its best fusing the two.” (Hass, Introduction to Best American Poetry 2001)
I studied with Hass and with Gary Snyder, along with the late Walter Pavlich, and received some great mentoring and advice from poets Alison Hawthorne Deming, Donald Hall, Colette Inez, and Karen Swenson, as well as wonderful friends and readers.
My poetry is informed by a deep engagement with the natural world, attuned to the smallest details and complexities of nature and our experience of place. Attentiveness and mindfulness are critical to my method of working, both as the poem first evolves and later, through the often rigorous process of revision.
I believe poetry is the most direct language with which to approach our place in the world and reconnect us to nature. By nature, I mean not only the natural world, but also the built environment; not only the processes and causal powers of the physical world, but our immediate experience of the spiritual and the non-human.
For the past twenty five years, I have been building a body of poetry that tries to achieve my goal of writing that is open, approachable, and eminently readable, at the same time that it is intellectual and revels in the joy of language. FALLOW FIELD represents the best of my poetry over that time.
Order your signed copy of FALLOW FIELD below: