Philip Larkin on reading versus hearing poetry


Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985)

In order to familiarize myself with the work of English poet Philip Larkin, I recently read his 1982 interview with The Paris Review (its famous “Art of Poetry” series is a resource I encourage all writers to check out). Regarded as one of England’s top poets, during his lifetime Larkin shied away from his fame, working as a librarian at the University of Hull. A proud page poet, he refused to give readings (though he did record a few of his books) and had this to say about their growing prominence in the United States:

Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much—the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you’re dragged along at the speaker’s own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing “there” and “their” and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may the audience. I don’t like hearing things in public, even music. In fact, I think poetry readings grew up on a false analogy with music: the text is the “score” that doesn’t “come to life” until it’s “performed.” It’s false because people can read words, whereas they can’t read music. When you write a poem, you put everything into it that’s needed: the reader should “hear” it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him. And of course this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don’t think it stands up on the page.

There’s certainly a parallel here with the current state of poetry, which in its most-popular form gravitates toward spoken-word/SLAM. The prominence of both of these is a net positive for the literary community because by blurring the lines between poetry, oratory, and music (i.e. hip-hop), it’s made the genre more accessible to a wider audience. But it’s not without its stylistic problems (which I could lecture on at length).

Often the medium overtakes the content, which as Larkin notes can lead to “easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax” that, when transcribed, just don’t work on the page. Conversely, some of the best poetry ever written must be read — to name one example, John Berryman’s Dream Songs. There is just so much in his odd syntax and phrasings to be appreciated that it requires a slow read; when read aloud, it flashes past and by the end it feels as though you’ve only seen the surface beneath which something greater rumbles. Spoken word may allow the performer a spectrum of sounds and body movements, but the page offers just as much, if not more.

This short note isn’t meant to privilege one approach over the other but is instead a reminder to think about the tools in our hands. Ask yourself: Why am I writing a poem and not prose? Is this piece meant to be performed, heard, or read? Simply asking these questions is what separates writers from those who merely write.

Read “Exodus of the Dead” in Popshot Magazine (UK)


“Exodus of the Dead” appears in Popshot Magazine Issue 13. Purchase a copy here.

What if the freshly-dead refused to drop as gravity intended — and instead, simply floated away? In my latest short story, “Exodus of the Dead,” I answer this question, envisioning a world where crime scenes are harder to discern without a victim and nobody fights over the airplane window seat. Written in the magical realist tradition of Italo Calvino and David Eagleman, the story is playful yet serious, fantastic but deeply human. Here’s an excerpt:

Death is tragic enough without having to get the dead down from the ceiling. No one knew why it happened, but starting one late-summer afternoon, the freshly-dead refused to drop as gravity intended. As though the last breath was wind in their sails, steadily they ascended like balloons, disappearing into the clouds. All across the world, patients lifted from their hospital beds and families came home to loved ones bumping the ceiling fan.

Support small presses and magazines! Issue 13 of Popshot Magazine (UK) can be purchased here.

“Words were powerless”: A Minnesota newspaper’s response to the Lincoln assassination

To recognize the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination, this article is a follow-up to my last post,The Funeral of President Lincoln.” If you enjoyed this, you may also like my short piece on Minnesota newspapers’ reaction to the death of Charles Darwin.

"President Lincoln Assassinated!", The St. Cloud Democrat, April 20, 1865.

“President Lincoln Assassinated!”, The St. Cloud Democrat, April 20, 1865.

On April 15, 1865, lying in a boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theater, President Abraham Lincoln died, the victim of an assassin’s bullet. What was a week celebrating an end to four years of bloodshed was capstoned by one last tragedy. Though not everyone felt the same way, tens of millions mourned their fallen hero, and in Minnesota as well as elsewhere, this sorrow turned into disbelief, into anger.

Lincoln has a special importance in the history of Minnesota not only because of his political legacy but also the fact that 1860 was the first presidential election the state could vote in. Although a few counties went for the Democratic candidate, the state overwhelmingly handed its four electoral votes to Lincoln. Months later when the Civil War broke out, Minnesota was one of the first to commit troops to the Union cause, and while the state and administration did not agree on every issue, the two were undoubtedly close. This made it all the more traumatic when news of the assassination reached the state.

One of the first Minnesota newspapers to report on the it was The St. Cloud Democrat, based out of the central part of the state. “He is Dead!” its editor, W. B. Mitchell, frantically announced, adding that God had struck “the light from our eyes” by taking “our great, good and mighty ruler.” He continued:

On Sabbath morning [April 15th] the terrible news fell upon us—crushing, stupefying, sickening. Men heard with blanched cheeks, and the blood cold—frozen—in their veins. To believe seemed impossible, and yet there was no room for hope—the truth was only too well established. Words were powerless. In the formation of language no such deed as this—the assassination of Liberty’s chosen son in a land that boasted to breathe only the air of freedom—had never been contemplated, and the brain of man had framed nothing for the tongue to express that was not weak and impotent. (April 20, 1865)

As the newspaper sorted through the details of the assassination — that John Wilkes Booth was the perpetrator and Secretary Seward a second victim — it worried about what was next. As Mitchell noted, the nation had lost a part of itself: “The heart of the nation had twined around that great body and taken it to themselves, and the great soul it contained had become a part of their soul.” For many, including Mitchell, Lincoln was an American Moses leading the country toward the Promised Land but never reaching it himself. Yet with the prophet gone, visions of this land became dubious and for some stained red.

"Letter from Jane Grey Swisshelm," The St. Cloud Democrat. April 27, 1865.

“Letter from Jane Grey Swisshelm,” The St. Cloud Democrat. April 27, 1865.

A week later The St. Cloud Democrat published a two-part letter from Jane Grey Swisshelm, an early supporter of Lincoln and one of the state’s most vocal abolitionists. Recording what she saw while in Washington, D.C., her correspondence is fascinating in that, written days apart, the two-halves capture the emotional shift that must have shaken so many. For example, the first is dated April 14, only hours before the assassination, and in it she observes the raised flags and “virtual peace” taking hold in the country: “[O]n this favored day the sun shines gloriously, after a long season of clouds and rain.” But three days later the storm returned:

It is sickening to pass the White House … so recently all gorgeous with flags and all manner of festive devices blazing with many colored lights, and reverberating with triumphant music, and witness the change to the sable emblems of woe. What made these garments even worse was the knowledge that just behind that draped wall lies the mangled body of our sainted, martyred President, and this visible presence adds greatly to the sorrow and gloom.

Finally, she seethed, the true character of the South had revealed itself by murdering the one person who would show them mercy:

The world at large—the masses of the Northern people—had no more just idea than had Mr. Lincoln of the animus of this most fiendish Rebellion[.] He was the one to test generosity, magnanimity, Christian charity and all that class of virtues to the utmost limit, and we have the result. As Christ was murdered by those He came to save, so has President Lincoln been sacrificed by the wretches he would have shielded from the just punishment of their crimes.


Jane Grey Swisshelm (1815-1884)

With the president gone, “Who now will stand between them and the reward of their two centuries’ of crimes against our common humanity, the thought of which makes the blood curdle in one’s veins?” She demanded that Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson, not steady his hand in retaliation: “Nations have no hereafter, and National sins must meet their punishment in this life.” This was a position she maintained in successive letters to the newspaper, recanting any benevolence she may have once shown, insisting that “The nation can never be safe while these, her implacable and wily foes, are above the grounds” (May 6, 1865).

In the months following, Swisshelm was not alone in her bloodlust. As the “Radical Republicans” in Congress sought to punish the South and ensure the rights of free blacks, President Johnson advocated a more moderate approach. Trying to reunite the country as quickly as possible, his policies alienated individuals like Swisshelm, who feared weakness would validate treason. The new president’s efforts backfired when, in 1866, the Radicals swept the midterm elections.

Although Reconstruction may not have affected Minnesota in the same way it did the South and New England, it did ignite a debate over how to reach the “Promised Land” Lincoln prophesied. While Minnesota sent several of these Radicals to Washington (including former Governor Alexander Ramsey), on the state-level, Republicans pushed for a black suffrage amendment to the state constitution. This, though, was voted down twice (1865, 1867) before passing in 1868 and was the first step on a path the state would take nearly a century to travel.

There really is no modern parallel to the anguish many Americans felt when President Lincoln was assassinated. Right when the nation’s bloodiest war was drawing to a close, it lost something greater than a man: it lost a symbol. As the “Great Emancipator,” Lincoln represented a vision of what the United States could be, and as that “great soul … had become a part of [the people’s] soul,” for many it must have felt as if much more than just the president had died that day. Upon hearing the news, how many asked, What now?

The Funeral of President Lincoln

This month marks the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination. Given the historical distance, though, it’s hard for us to really appreciate how traumatic this event was — especially when, in the days preceding it, there was so much to celebrate. On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, effectively ending the Civil War. But ten days later, the colors of victory faded black as the president’s hearse moved solemnly through the streets of Washington.

The St. Cloud Democrat (Minnesota: April 27, 1865) ran an account of the three-mile-long procession, which I’ve reprinted below. As you read it, imagine for a moment what it must have been like watching the carriages move past. Though the war was over, tremulous times lied ahead. The reconstruction of a nation began with a tomb for its moral compass.

President Lincoln Funeral Newspaper Article - Saint Cloud Democrat

“President Lincoln’s Funeral,” from The St. Cloud Democrat (April 27, 1865)


The solemn funeral rites and obsequies of the late President Lincoln were performed today in the capital of the country. No greater love for the memory of the illustrious dead was ever demonstrated in the annals of civilization.

The dawn that was ushered in by the heavy booming of the salutes of minute guns from the fortifications surrounding the city, never broke purer or brighter or clearer than on this day.

The morn that succeeded, all the day that followed, even to the very setting of the sun, was the loveliest of the season. The heavens were undimmed by even one passing cloud.

Between 10 and 11 o’clock the military escort arrived and formed in line on Pennsylvania avenue, the left resting on Fifteenth street. The escort consisted of two regiments of infantry, two battalions of cavalry, eight pieces of artillery, and one battalion marines. The marines were headed by a full marine band, and the’other military companies were a’so accompanied by bauds.

By 12 o’clock Pennsylvania avenue was lined from street to housetop, all the way to the White House, with thousands of people of all ages.

At that hour the ceremonies commenced in the east room, where the ceiling was draped with crape, and where resplendent mirrors were hung with borders composed of emblems of mourning, while the drapery gave the room a dim light that added to the solemnity of the mournful scene.


President Lincoln’s funeral procession in Washington, D.C.

All that remained of ABRAHAM LINCOLN, sixteenth President of these United States, lay in a grand and gloomy catafalque, which was relieved, however, by choice flowers.

Cards of admission to the executive mansion was issued to the number of 600—forty of which were to the clergymen and twenty to the members of the press. The rest included the Governors of nearly all the loyal States, friends of the family, and those mentioned already.

Perhaps the most touching grief, which moved all present, was that of little Thaddeus Lincoln, the favorite son. He and his elder brother were the only mourners of the family present during the funeral solemnities.

President Johnson stood beside the remains of his lamented predecessor during the funeral oration.

Gen. Grant stood at the head of the corpse, while the members of the Cabinet and ex-Vice-President Hamlin were grouped about these eminent personages.

Rev. Dr. Hall, Rector of the Church of the Epiphany, rose and read a portion of the Episcopalian service for the burial of the dead.

Bishop-Simpson, of the Methodist Church, then offered a prayer, in which he fervently alluded to the emancipation proclamation and other noted deeds performed by President Lincoln.


President Lincoln’s body lying in wake in New York City.

Rev. Dr. Gurley then read a funeral oration. At 2 p. M. the funeral procession started. All the bells in the city were toiled, while minute guns were fi-ed. Pennsylvania avenue, from the Treasury building to the Capitol, was entirely clear from curb to curb.

The procession moved, headed by a colored regiment with arms trailed, pretty much in the order of the published programme.

From the house tops, where thousands were congregated, the sight was the most sublime and magnificent one ever seen in this city or country. The forts across the Potomac sent up their curling smoke to join the echo of the minute guns that were fired in the city limits.

Preceding the hearse was the military escort, over one mile long. At short intervals bands discoursed dirges and drums beat muffled sounds.

After the hearse came the family, consisting only of Robert Lincoln and his little brother, and their relatives. Mrs Lincoln did not go out.

The procession was two hours and ten minutes passing a given point, being about three miles long. The centre of it had reached the Capital and was returning before the rear had left Willard’s.

To-morrow the remains will lie in state, and the next day they will go under escort to Illinois by way of Baltimore, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Chicago, to Springfield, and thus will end the funeral of ABRAHAM LINCOLN.

Holding Robert Bly’s Diaries

Robert Bly 1968

Robert Bly c. 1967

Back in October 2014 I went through the Robert Bly Papers at the University of Minnesota’s archives. Although I’ve done archival work elsewhere (at Morris and online), this was the first time I’d gone through the papers of a writer — and the experience filled me with such a range of emotion that, walking the leaf-covered sidewalk home, I couldn’t understand why I was weeping. Overcome with feelings of inspiration and grief, I blamed the fall air for being harsh on eyes too-familiar with the Houston heat.

Going through Bly’s diaries and correspondence spanning his entire life, I felt empowered watching this writer grow, discovering that the youthful doubts I harbor are doubts he harbored, too. It felt validating. (I don’t expect anyone but the writers in the audience to understand what I mean by this). Sometimes I’d even stumble across lines that, in variation, have appeared in my own diary:

Dec. 6 [1955]: Today […] the thought came: why not keep a diary for posterity – one that would record exactly how life is lived today, not for my use, nor anyone’s but those who will not be born for five hundred years yet. Such a thing will keep one’s name alive forever, if it can only be broad, with much observed, much compared, significant experiences related. Perhaps half an hour a day would be enough. [Box 68, Folder 1]

Some diaries are read “five hundred years yet” for that reason (like Samuel Pepys‘), but when given the scholarly attention he deserves, Bly’s will be read for the influences that shaped him and, thus, all of American poetry. Reading his diaries before the publication of his literary magazine The Fifties, one is struck by his seriousness — for every page of daily observation there are dozens more filled with notes on mythology, what he’s reading, and so on. Among the many diaries I’ve read, the only other that is comparable, stylistically, are Kerouac’s when he was writing The Town and the City.

To be able to hold his diary with my own hands and relate to it in such a personal way is something I wish every writer could experience. Doing so bridges the historical distance. While there, I also held personal letters from Ginsberg, Snyder, Bukowski, Sexton, and others — all people who, for the most part, I’ve only read about (the exception being Snyder). To reach out and make these people real rather than names on book-covers or black-and-white figures on a film reel is powerful.

The Death of Tomas Tranströmer

Tomas Transtromer

Tomas Tranströmer (c. 1980)

I was saddened to read about the death of Tomas Tranströmer, the Swedish Nobel Prize-winning poet. Perhaps like so many others, I’d discovered Tranströmer late, and in fact, when he’d won the prize in 2011, it was my first exposure to him. Unfortunately, as this was around the time I’d decided to to become a Serious Writer, my hands were full and so I filed him away, thinking about the growing list of books I’ll read in retirement.

It wasn’t until a few years later, while attending the release party for Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer (2013) that I really began to read and develop an impression of Tranströmer. (As a side note: For anyone interested in the relationship between literary friends, poet and translator, it’s an interesting case study). Shortly thereafter, I purchased a used copy of The Half-Finished Heaven (2001) and read each poem again and again, slowly and quickly, trying to grasp at the layers hidden beneath the surface. (This layering is not uncommon to a Tranströmer poem). Because of this, I could only read the book in small doses.

While such a slow grazing may be anathema for most books, for others it’s a tribute to their quality. This is not to dismiss books that can be read cover-to-cover in one sitting, but there are just some works that are so emotionally draining, so taxing, that it has to be put down. It’s like a rich, chocolate cake — It’s delicious, but please, no more. Not now. 

Today I spent the afternoon re-reading Tranströmer’s poems, and given the news from Sweden, thought the following was appropriate. Though we eventually wear the suit death sews for us, fortunately, what is buried or burned is just a body and not the spirit. Poets live on.

Black Postcards
Translated by Robert Bly


The calendar all booked up, the future unknown.

The cable silently hums some folk song

but lacks a country. Snow falls in the gray sea. Shadows

fight out on the dock.


Halfway through your life, death turns up

and takes your pertinent measurements. We forget

the visit. Life goes on. But someone is sewing

the suit in the silence.

Writing advice from Bly, Merwin, and Pound: “It’s always good to learn another language and translate”


Letter from Robert Bly (August 9, 2013)

A few years ago I corresponded with poet Robert Bly, and I asked him what advice he had for young writers. In his late-eighties and ill, I did not expect an answer, and so I was surprised (even more: nervous) when a few weeks later a familiar cream-colored envelope arrived. Opening it, he’d written,

“You’re wondering what advice I would have. I would say reach out beyond the poets that you know already and see if you can find some poets from other cultures that touch you. It’s always good to learn another language and translate. We get a broader perspective that way than we do in going to school.” (August 9, 2013)

Now, the truth is that even though we ask for advice, we don’t really want it, especially if it means changing what we’re used to. (The only advice we’re really open to is that which least inconveniences us). So, reading his letter, I became despondent, wishing I’d taken my Spanish courses more seriously. But even as I tried to reason my way out, I knew encouraging young poets to translate was not unconventional. In fact, I recalled an interview with W.S. Merwin in which he talks about meeting Ezra Pound, who offered the following:

“If you want to be a poet, you have to take it seriously. You have to work on it the way you work on anything else, and you have to do it every day.” He said, “You should write about 75 lines a day,” (Pound was great at laying down the law on how to do anything), “but you don’t have anything to write 75 lines about a day. You don’t really have anything to write about. At the age of 18 you think you do, but you don’t.

“The way to do it is to learn a language and translate it — that way you can practice and find out what you can do with your language – your language. You can learn a foreign language, but translation is a way of learning your own language.”

Having spent years staring at the page, worried about my silence, Pound’s logic made sense to me. To be a writer, one has to write. Too often artists expect manuscripts to fall from the Heavens without realizing that writing, like anything else, is a craft. Writers are wordsmiths. To draw an analogy: it’d be absurd to expect a blacksmith to make a broadsword without first making a pile of broken shards and twisted metal. (As evidence: In front of me is a shelf full of notebooks filled with scrap and shavings).

So for my first project, I translated two poems by Sinclair Lewis, originally written in German while a college studen. With no choice but to start from the beginning, I relied heavily on a German-English dictionary. As I began to uncover certain phrases and thoughts, line-by-line I struggled to decipher what Lewis was actually saying — and when I was stuck, I wasn’t afraid to reach out to native-speakers and ask for help. In the end, the two pieces took just as many months and were published in the Sinclair Lewis Society Newsletter.

Since Christmas I’ve worked on more translations, this time of poet Julius Baumann’s Fra Vidda (1915) and the short stories of Danish writer Ernesto Dalgas (1871-1899). Engaging these more seriously than I did Lewis’ work, they’ve made me more conscious of the philosophy of translation: It’s led me to ask, What does it mean to translate a poem? and Why do we do it? How one answers these will necessarily guide what appears on the page, which is why it is possible for many versions of a poem to exist, each honest and true yet incomplete.

I’m too new at this to have a fully-developed ethic (let alone whole philosophy), but I will note the first lessons I learned: art is not literal and transliteration is murder. Merely substituting each word for its English equivalent is a butchering of the body that allows the spirit to escape. To put it differently, when studying a person’s features, one finds that a human face is made of movement, emotion; it’s these same things that make a poem. In my little time translating, that is the analogy that’s guided me. That’s what distinguishes the final draft from my first.

Although it’s been a year and a half since I received Bly’s letter, I’ve tried my best to follow his advice. Some of my translations are better than others, but the process has been its own reward — I’ve “broadened my perspective” and “learned my language” in ways I otherwise wouldn’t have. It’s not easy, but then again why should it be? Like anything else it’s work, but it’s good work.

It’s the kind of work Bly, Merwin, and Pound would recommend.