At The Outline, Laura Yan narrates the saga of a beleaguered poet recently piled on by the internet. A marine scientist by trade, Collin Andrew Yost is tattooed, has a beard and lives in Portland, Oregon, none of which worked in his favor. Neither did the fact that he posted his poems on Instagram in a typeset font, accompanied by images of cigarettes and frequent references to coffee. Yost had a lot of fans on Instagram, but when a writer tweeted critiques about what she viewed as misogynistic and clichéd aspects of his poems, others began to bash him personally. Electric Literature called him “Brobert Frost.” Another said cruelly, “Wow. I think I got cancer reading this.”
After piling on herself, Yan looked more closely at the person who had become the literary internet’s punching bag. She saw her young self, who wrote personal essays and self-published poems on Tumblr. Behind the pile-on is a simple fact: The internet changes the way people behave. Emboldened by anonymity, we align ourselves according to what we love or hate, creating a place that can be as hostile as high school. Bur if one of literature’s gifts is its ability to create empathy for readers, then maybe Yost’s experience can teach us something about the value of empathy online.
Collin frames his brush with Twitter infamy with uplifting platitudes: love eventually conquered hate, and hate eventually backfired … But it was clear that the incident changed him. “I went from [being in] a close-knit Instagram family to being a woman hater and this ‘bro’ to all these strangers,” Collin said. “I mean, it sucked.” Now, some mornings, he wakes up a little afraid to look at his phone. But then again, his friends told him, maybe that was a sign that he was getting it right, on the road to making it. Collin enjoyed his work as a scientist, but his dream — like almost everyone who writes, he said — was to inspire people, give “people an emotion when they can’t find it themselves.”
I asked Collin if he thought there might have been any validity to the criticisms leveled against him. “No,” he said immediately. “I’m completely fine with criticism when it is actually criticism. But saying “you’re a pretentious dick and your writing is trash. please stop. hope you die” isn’t criticism. That has been 99.9 percent of the comments and messages.”
And so Collin, with his cigarettes and typewriter and goofy smile, continues to share poems on Instagram (at least when you were with me, you were an artist/now you’re just someone’s girlfriend/I’m not sure who that hurt more, goes a recent poem). “It shouldn’t matter if your ‘poetry’ sucks,” he said. “You wrote it. You created something, you molded words together and it means something personal to you… to me, poetry is simply being pure and honest with yourself.”
Young claims Lucille Clifton, Seamus Heaney, and Rita Dove as important influences, and says he sees music as the essence of his art. Though his poems do not lack for depth, they rarely scan as difficult, let alone forbidding. He likes puns, and freely borrows forms from other fields (the blues, fugitive-slave posters, film noir). In college, he told me, he realized that “poetry was not this thing in the atmosphere. You have to look in your backyard. That’s the stuff to write about.” At the time, he’d never read a poem that represented someone like his grandmother. “I remember thinking, If I can get her in a poem, then I’ll have done something.” Young began to look to poetry as a sort of archive, vindicating evidence of “family—blood, adopted, imagined,” to borrow the dedication of Most Way Home. In “Oblivion,” he writes what might be his motto, or maybe a fervent dream: “Nothing // stays lost forever.”
Thomas Degeorge, Slaughter of the Suitors by Odysseus and Telemachus (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
In the last 400 years, about 60 English translators — all men — have tackled Homer’s Odyssey. This fact has lost its transparency now that Emily Wilson, a classicist at the University of Pennsylvania, released her own version, a radically contemporary take on the most canonical text in the Western tradition. At The New York Times Magazine, Wyatt Mason recently profiled Wilson and explored her approach to the Odyssey. The effect of some of her choices is startling — like seeing an old canvas for the first time after the removal of centuries of grime. Case in point: the way she’s addressed a short but deeply troubling scene, the slaughter of the women slaves at Odysseus’ palace.
In the episode that Wilson calls “one of the most horrible and haunting of the whole poem,” Odysseus returns home to find that his palace has been overrun by suitors for his wife’s hand. Though she has resisted them, the women in her palace have not. Odysseus, after slaying the suitors, tells his son, Telemachus, to kill the women. It is an interesting injunction from Odysseus, who himself, during his 10 years of wandering, was serially unfaithful. In Robert Fagles’s much-praised translation of the poem, Telemachus says, before he executes the palace women on his father’s command: “No clean death for the likes of them, by god!/Not from me — they showered abuse on my head, my mother’s too!/You sluts — the suitors’ whores!”
But Wilson, in her introduction, reminds us that these palace women — “maidservants” has often been put forward as a “correct” translation of the Greek δμωαι, dmoai, which Wilson calls “an entirely misleading and also not at all literal translation,” the root of the Greek meaning “to overpower, to tame, to subdue” — weren’t free. Rather, they were slaves, and if women, only barely. Young female slaves in a palace would have had little agency to resist the demands of powerful men. Where Fagles wrote “whores” and “the likes of them” — and Lattimore “the creatures” — the original Greek, Wilson explained, is just a feminine definite article meaning “female ones.” To call them “whores” and “creatures” reflects, for Wilson, “a misogynistic agenda”: their translators’ interpretation of how these females would be defined. Here is how Wilson renders their undoing:
"I refuse to grant these girls
a clean death, since they poured down shame on me
and Mother, when they lay beside the suitors.”
At that, he wound a piece of sailor’s rope
round the rotunda and round the mighty pillar,
stretched up so high no foot could touch the ground.
As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly
home to their nests, but someone sets a trap —
they crash into a net, a bitter bedtime;
just so the girls, their heads all in a row,
were strung up with the noose around their necks
to make their death an agony. They gasped,
feet twitching for a while, but not for long.
In many cases, dying young grants many artists a type of sainthood, forever shrouding them in mystery, and protecting their profile from the inevitable creative and stylistic ravages of age. Some famous examples are Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Belushi, Kurt Cobain, and poet Frank Stanford.
For the Poetry Foundation, writer Ben Ehrenreich sifts through Stanford’s papers at Yale, gives his work a close read and travels to Arkansas where Stanford grew up and eventually met his end in 1978. Best known for the 500-page poetic magnum opus The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, unanswered questions still swirl around the young poet, questions about what parts of his mythology were self-made or true. Called “a swamprat Rimbaud,” Stanford had a strong relationship with death, both on and off the page, and the pages he left behind continue to inspire and tantalize readers, as new generations discover his dense, singular, ethereal work.
Death is everywhere in Stanford’s poetry, and it often drives a Cadillac. It’s there—he’s there, I should say—in the first lines of The Battlefield, which begins with the funeral of young Francis’ nanny: “well that black Cadillac drove right up to your front door / and the chauffeur was death / he knocked on the screen he said come on woman let’s take a ride.”
In much of the work Stanford published in the mid-1970s—presumably written in the poet’s early and mid-20s, around the time he bid academia goodbye—death took center stage. As time passed, death gradually pushed everything else to the sidelines, everything but love, which grew more pained and brittle as the years went by. Stanford’s “biggest love affair,” C.D. Wright told me with a tired smile, “was with death.” And he was not a man known for being stingy with love.
Eileen Myles attends the annual Edinburgh International Book Festival at Charlotte Square Gardens on August 23, 2017 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images)
At Rolling Stone, Helena Fitzgerald profiles punk poet and 1992 write-in Presidential candidate Eileen Myles. Myles’s new memoir, Afterglow, was released this week, and their first autobiographical novel, Cool for You, was recently re-released and included an introduction by I Love Dick author Chris Kraus.
Myles (who prefers gender-neutral pronouns) has been publishing since the 70s, but has lately experienced a new wave of popularity, gathering new young fans in part because of their Twitter presence and also the character inspired by them on Transparent.
Among other things, Myles talks with Fitzgerald about the importance right now of poetry and art as forms of resistance under the current U.S. presidential administration. Interestingly, though, Myles points out that what’s been happening really isn’t all that new.
In this current moment, the feeling that we’re facing an avalanche, that we might be destroyed, is hard to ignore. When prompted to speak about art in the current political moment, Myles says: “You know, there is nothing new about what’s happening now.” Myles goes on to call Trump’s assembled henchmen “a cabinet of cockblockers: an educational secretary who’s against education, an attorney general who’s a Klansman.” But they also stress that there’s precedent throughout our history for all of these, that none of these people came out of nowhere. As much of Myles’ work — such as the seminal “An American Poem” — has grappled with in the past, this is the America in which we have always lived. The James Comey testimony took place a few days before our meeting, and Myles was passionately skeptical of the liberal praise that has been showered on the former director of the FBI. “They’re like, ‘Oh, Comey’s the good guy!’ Are you kidding me? He’s talking about a Shining City on the Hill; he’s talking about the horror, and the outrage, of people interfering with our election — like that isn’t what we do in the Middle East and in South America. I’ve never been so driven to make the argument about the nature of our history.”
At The Walrus, Matthew Zapruder examines his relationships with poetry and with his father. Despite being two men with great facility for precise language, they were unable to use it to bridge the distance between them. In likening poems to people, Zapruder says that the most beautiful thing about the poems most important to him is that their meaning cannot fully be articulated.
I have found that the poems which have meant the most to me, to which I return again and again, retain a central unsayability, a place where the drama of truly looking for something essential that can never quite be reached is expressed. Somewhere in the poem, or at its end, knowingness stops. You can feel the intelligence in the poem truly exploring, clambering along the words and down the page, and also that intelligence stopping at what cannot be known. Those moments where a limit is reached can often be the greatest, and most honest, in poetry. They can come first as a surprise, then immediately afterward feel inevitable, at least for a little while.
This is why asking for a certain kind of knowledge—that way of knowing we automatically, and justifiably, expect from other texts, anything other than a poem—limits our experience with poetry. If we imagine a poem as something to be answered or solved, we will most likely find ways to do so. But I think we would be better off to think of “understanding” in a poem as an ongoing process of attention.
Simone Weil writes that attention is the purest form of generosity. A generous, open, genuinely focused attention moves us through the poem, just as it moves us through an experience, through a friendship, through anything else that means and keeps on meaning. If a poem is really good, you can’t really say what it’s “about,” that is, what its central “message” is, any more than you can do so for a painting or a piece of music or a person or a mountain.
A poem is like a person. The more you know someone, the more you realize there is always something more to know and understand. A final understanding could probably only begin upon permanent separation, or death. This is why we come back to certain poems, as we do to places or people, to experience and re-experience, to see ourselves for who we truly are, and to continue to be changed.
No matter how intense reading a poem in a book can be, memorizing the poem makes it more visceral, more intense. Physically, we’re free of holding the book, turning the pages, and training our eyes along the line. We’ll avoid the minor but inevitable reading errors that impair or delay perfect comprehension. And when the reader has taken the poem so deeply into the body that it’s memorized, the words don’t need to be understood and processed before they can be reacted to; the gap between the words and emotions they elicit disappears.
It’s no strain to recall that reading poetry is an emotional and intellectual experience, but recitation reminds us that poetry, in some ways, is as physical as dancing. Through recitation, the body and soul are synchronized.
The first third of the binder described various McSorley’s artifacts—the turkey wishbones that had been dangling above the taps since 1917, when a group of regulars hung them for good luck before shipping out serve in World War One; the stuffed jackalope behind the bar; Harry Houdini’s handcuffs dangling from the ceiling as if the great escape artist had been hanging there with them, freed himself, and left behind a souvenir. The middle section consisted of poems devoted to “Unsorted Regulars, Misfits, Liars, Heroes & Psychos.” The language was raw, peppered with black humor and full of tragedy—a reminder that for all the laughter and communal goodwill I associated with McSorley’s, the men and women who are drawn into the bar’s orbit typically arrive with some scars. These were my father’s people, the alcoholics and loners and deviants he made his life with, and even at their darkest, the poems shined a light on his characters’ humanity.
A man jogs by the beach towards the wall dividing Mexico and the U.S. in Tijuana, 2004. (AP)
Journalists aren’t the only writers covering international politics. In a two-part series at Poetry International, poets from Mexico to Europe, Africa to Asia, discuss the roles borders play in their lives, and the way borders limit our lives physically, linguistically, and culturally. Whether reflecting on living in Texas near the route of Trump’s proposed wall or exploring the psychological borders of one’s cultural identity, these writers weigh in on what it means to be a citizen, the way language moves through populations, and how movement across borders creates vitality. You can read the forum’s first part here.
Philip Metres (b. USA): Borders are notoriously porous; no wall ever holds everyone out. The Great Wall failed to keep the Mongols at bay. The Maginot Line was crossed. Consider the tunnels of Gaza—whole cars and brides smuggled through. My passport is blue, and I try to live a political life according to and beyond the ideals of the Constitution. But I am a citizen of the earth and verse, of oxygen and lung, of the hurting and longing, of hoping against hope.
Every time I attempt translation, I feel something in me transported elsewhere, beyond my own skull’s borders, like some figure in a Chagall unmoored from earth, somewhere between thrill and terror.
Martin Camps (b. Mexico): Benedict Anderson said that we live in “imaginary communities”. What does “Mexican” or “American” mean? I believe that all human beings have planetary rights to cross borders, to live where they want to live. But borders exist to preserve a world order, the ones that have and the ones that don’t. We have borders even in our cities, living in the “nice part of the city” and not going to other parts where the “undesirables” live. We have shadow borders in every American city.
Ishion Hutchinson (b. Jamaica): To be a citizen, strictly speaking, is to belong to a state, which, from an official standpoint, is always suspicious of duality. “But,” Auden says, “Love, at least, is not a state,” and I think that speaks to being a citizen of a border, without fear of either side, unwaveringly in love with both.