Category Archives: Famous People

“Magnitude and bond”

For this month’s Famous People poem, Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Paul Robeson” and “Of Robert Frost” (because just one Gwendolyn Brooks poem at a time isn’t enough. Also I’ve missed a few of this supposed-to-be monthly series).

I had to wake up super early last Sunday morning, which I wasn’t that thrilled about, but when my radio came on it happened to wake me up with the sound of Gwendolyn Brooks’ amazing voice, and then I didn’t mind so much. (A BBC show not currently available online, alas). Her delightful presence and dynamic reading voice even on old somewhat scratchy recordings is just phenomenal—I would have loved to hear her in person.

Here she is reading her most-anthologized poem “We Real Cool” (and explaining that she sort of wishes she were also known for writing other poems) so you have a taste.

Brooks wrote about regular people (“Gay Chaps at the Bar“, “The Bean Eaters” for e.g.) with great compassion and insight, and she wrote about some famous people too with her remarkable precision and verve. Here are two, “Paul Robeson” and “Of Robert Frost“. They’re both short portraits, focused, the Frost poem’s lines lines long but with short, blunt sentences, with the wonderful detail of his eyebrows “neither too far up nor down.” The Robeson lines and sentences contract and swell, and wind up on one of my favorite phrases in Brooks’ poems, “we are each others’ / magnitude and bond.”

(After reading “Paul Robeson” you will undoubtedly want to revel in his famous voice a while. Here he is singing for workers at the in-progress Sydney Opera House, and here being interviewed about civil rights.)

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Father Time and Mother Earth / A Marriage on the Rocks

For this month’s look at a poem about a famous person, James Merrill’s “The Broken Home

I love this sonnet sequence, James Merrill’s elegant, rueful, beautiful take on his childhood and his parents. This is a different angle on a famous person poem than the others I’ve pointed to so far this year, since Merrill is talking about himself and his family rather than a far-off celebrity, but since his father was the Merrill of Merrill Lynch and since the poet himself is one of the 20th century biggies, it counts.

I first heard “The Broken Home”, rather than read it, Continue reading

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Thinking of Red

For this month’s Famous People poem, Linda Bierds’ “Thinking of Red” (epigraph: “Marie Curie, 1934“).

It’s a little like complaining that Rembrandt* is always doing beautiful things with light to talk about how Linda Bierds’ poems are so often doing the same thing, because they are doing that same thing so damn well and that thing is so exquisite and resonant, immediate. “Bierds’ persistent subject is the effort to imagine herself so fully into historical events that the past becomes the present, the public merges with the private” says David Walker in American Alphabets: 25 Contemporary Poets, “Her poems reflect a double vision, set in history and yet released from it by imagination. Though her research is impeccable, she is fortunately not confined by it; the facts keep giving way to intuition, intensely empathic and hauntingly articulate.”

*(Poets.org goes with Vermeer instead: “Linda Bierds has become our premiere verbal portraitist of the space-time continuum, tracing the fine lines of transcendent human experience with the sure hand of a Vermeer, fashioning events of verbal meaning with the impeccable ear of a Yeats.”)

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What Profit Is There In Being Marlene Dietrich

For this month’s Famous People poem, Barbara Hamby’s “What Profit is there in Being Marlene Dietrich

What profit is there in being Marlene Dietrich

if you don’t rip the intestines out of some dummkopf
who adores you? […]

This sonnet starts off with a roar — I admit I’m a sucker for poems that use sound combos like “intestines” and “dummkopf” in a single line. It’s a great setup for the attitude of the poem, and a really turn after the line break. Continue reading

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AI’s “Hoover, Edgar J.”

For this month’s Famous People post, Ai’s “Hoover, Edgar J.

The poet Ai’s is usually summed up with something along the lines of “noted for her uncompromising poetic vision and bleak dramatic monologues” (Poetry Foundation bio). The first couple times I tried to read Vice, her National Book Award-winning new and selected from 1999, the bleak and uncompromising part turned me off. But friends kept recommending her because I write dramatic monologues, so I went back. My initial take: the 1st person (all her dramatic monologues are in 1st person) sometimes works well , and sometimes sounds like the poet putting words/metaphors the character wouldn’t actually say into their mouths, to less effect.

One poem I do like though is “Hoover, Edgar J.” It’s a long-ish, tight, fast-moving poem with internal rhyme that takes soundbite/quotation/political colloquial and pushes it to poetry without sounding like ‘poetry.’ The tension of line and speech holds things taut here, and the character painted, right in line with J Edgar’s pop culture persona (I don’t know much about his deep biography), is complex and fascinating (and a little scary).

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“Nobody Dies Like Humphrey Bogart”

Sliding in with just over an hour of January to spare (in my time zone anyway), the first installment of 2015’s monthly series, which for this spin around the sun will look at poems about famous people. (Previous years having covered poems about Music, Animal poems, and poems —I was really hewing to the literal idea my first year of blogging, apparently—about Months).

I already know this topic’ll let me work in Linda Bierds, Ai, some more William Matthews, and a Frank O’Hara, maybe that great Barbara Hamby sonnet about Marlene Dietrich if I can find it again. I already fear it’ll devolve into a 12-part argument with myself about how much a reader needs to know about a poem’s subject (or be told in the poem, and how to do that) to really enjoy it/get it. Continue reading

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