Reviews & Liner Notes

Tom Lutz, writer

When I was an undergraduate, an English professor said, in passing, “a poem a day keeps the doctor away.” He meant, I assume, that being regularly exposed to the best that has been thought and written is a universal medicine. This collection helps bring poetry off the page and back into the ear, where it belongs, and hearing it read with such skill is a constant revelation. I have not found myself ever, for instance, since I was forced to in college, deciding to sit down and read Tennyson or Milton, but hearing them read has made me realize what I’ve been missing. This is the best of the best, read by the best of the best. I plan on listening to this CD every day on my commute and saving a bundle on my mental health bills.

Dave King, Novelist

For a few years, when I was publishing poetry and working on my novel, I taught freshman English at Baruch College, here in New York City. Part of the course was an introduction to literature, divided rather artificially by genre, and the unit the students feared most direly was poetry. Why was that? Why should young people who bravely take on The Age of Innocence and A Doll’s House be cowed by “Stopping by Woods,” which is short and so pleasingly accessible in its rhymes and meter?

One answer is that they were only accessing about a third of the pleasure. Most Americans view poetry as something to be absorbed privately, perhaps in a meadow or a noiseless plush salon; it’s the art form we make room for by pushing away other stimuli. But as I told my students, poetry occurs on at least three levels: there’s the content, of course, as most people realize. But then there’s the poem’’s visual appearance on the page; and finally, the way it sounds.

How on earth did we forget this last? How, in our noisy and public world, did we relegate a medium rich in rhythm—rich in echo and voice and song—to a silent interiority? It must be simply a mistake! For as my students discovered, all poems change when you say them aloud; in fact, a poem will change each new time you speak it aloud, just like that onrushing river you can’t step into twice. Poems recited (even to oneself, as I confess I do, alone in my office) instantly become performative, reverberating off the mood and the day and whatever you had for breakfast that morning and who you’re hoping to be with in the evening. And poems spoken aloud in public, of course, are theater.

So next time you read a poem, please speak up.

Laurie Winer, Critic

How does it happen that great poetry cuts through all the noise and noisy disagreements that separate us and set us at each other’s throats? How does it target and hit the note that quiets us, that unifies us, and that, in turn, defines us as human?

The performers on this CD illuminate the mystery. Beneath the trembling, faux enthusiasm of Donna Lynne Champlin’s reading of “Job Application,” or the steely reserve of Charles Busch’s “My Last Duchess,” there lies the truth of the situation, like a beautiful rock that’s been polished smooth by all of the people who have heard before and who have understood.

Here we are in 2010: living without the benefit of a unifying popular culture, but with a culture frayed into a million semi-connected strands. How sobering, how comforting it is to be reminded of the notes that bind us. When you hear Emily Skinner say:

Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,

Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;

Yet many a man is making friends with death

Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.

Then you know that is true. And that is enough.

A note from Jane Hirshfield, Poet:

This poem’s lake and maple, its quicksand and egret, all still exist, or their escendents do, going through the same motions of eternity and subtraction, of surface breaking and quick disappearance, of one existence moving into another. It’s a bit like the child’s game of “scissors, paper, rock.” Maple drinks lake, lake becomes maple, leaves fall and feed fish, fish are eaten by egret, moonlight adds its weightlessness to them all, rain comes and leaves, then returns. Consuming and consumed, vanishing and returning, are what we are made of, and of all our loves and longings, as well. This poem signs on for longing – for the human grief of human longing, and for the enlarging longing that calls us into the lake a 14th c. Indian mystic once sang of, limitlessly large. Transparence restores beauty. Inclusion restores beauty. And when those consolations cannot be found or felt, there’s still the beak of the egret touching the water, and the water’s answering shiver. There’s still Lal Ded’s human-voiced singing, if not her lake.

Poems live in people, one by one, as powerful secrets do. They pass between us in silence and on the voice – yet even read in silence, they are meant to be heard. A written poem is a score that wants to awaken inside the instrument of a single human life—right now, yours. Poems are, for me, the deepest voice we hear, one whose overtones and undertones hold the music of full existence. It’s good to think that this poem and its 99 companions are traveling here between larynx, breath, and ear, each becoming an audible secret.

“Lake and Maple” comes from upstate New York, where I still go often, but I’ve lived for 35 years now in the San Francisco Bay Area, writing poems and essays, traveling to teach and give readings, talking with as many kinds of people as I can—biologists, animal psychologists, geomorphologists, physicists, carpenters, artists, farmers, practitioners of all the many forms of awareness. Every one of them, it seems to me, is trying as best they can to save this world.

Jane Hirsfield’s poem, “Lake and Maple” appears on CD 1 Track 23

A note from Taylor Mali, Poet

Although poets are under no particular obligation to be factually correct—I always say that poetry’s debt to Truth is greater than its debt to fact—I did, in fact, live next to a three-legged dog named Bodhisattva when I lived in Oakland (although I never knew him when he had four legs). This was just one of those stories I always knew would become a poem one day: the dog finally getting his leg back when the ashes of the two cremations were mixed. I meant to write more of a ballad and have the refrain come back one or two more times than it does, but that’s not what came out. As it is, the refrain does a good job of anchoring the poem, as well as letting the audience know when it is over. I love performing this poem in high schools because I’ve constructed a situation in which I can say “Bitch” with a perfectly straight face and NOT risk getting reprimanded by the administration.

I live in New York City, a member of the tenth generation of my family to do so, but my wife and I have a house in The Berkshires to which we escape MORE than half the time (at least that’s the plan). I make my living writing, reading, and teaching poetry all over the world; it’s a dream come true.

Taylor Mali’s poem, “A Dog called Bodhisattva” appears on CD 2 Track 11.

A note from Tony Hoagland, Poet:

Improbably enough, “Self-Improvement” is based on a true story told to me by another poet– the historical Bruce. We both wrote poems based on his story, but mine turned out better- that’s the way narrative cookie crumbles. “A strong tongue must be a big advantage for a poet,” I told him admiringly, but he was not consoled. (Keats would agree- see “Ode to Melancholy”, in which the hero, “whose strenuous tongue can burst’s joy’s grape against his palette fine,” gets the girl in the end.) Anyway, erotic wordplay will never be eliminated from art, if the political correctness contingent hasn’t done it by now. I don’t love the lamentable frat boy humor of Saturday Night Live, but poetry and stand-up comedy do have a lot in common–timing, story, linguistic embellishment, and reiteration. What poetry has to offer that the Comedy Channel doesn’t is the sudden turn towards sobriety and empathy in the wake of hilarity. Isn’t that the other thing we want, besides Distraction– to be taken deeper into life? What I like about hearing a good poem read out loud is the way (if the poem works) everything Slows Down, so you hear each development with pleasure, and feel your own life in the meantime. To be compelled to be Slow, to be seduced into a state of Slow Unfolding is one of our deep contemporary thirsts. I don’t need to explain why.

I live half time in Houston, Texas, where I teach, half time on Cape Cod. I’ve been uncannily lucky, but poetry welcomes failure, and that’s how I got here, because, of course, Failure breaks down the hard macho proteins of Ambition Pride and Fear into the mulch of humility. America, you have Empire Dysfunction Syndrome, and you need Poetry! I’d like to sing you a little song. This is how it goes.

Tony Hoagland’s poem, “Self-Improvement” appears on CD 2 Track 14.

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