S4N Pocket Poems Series
Talk of Happiness, by Adam Penna
Talk of Happiness
Poems by Adam Penna
ISBN 978-0-9798707-5-0 / 0-9798707-5-5
Following on his first collection, Little Songs & Lyrics of Genji, in which Adam Penna declared that each poem was an attempt “to right myself each day,” the poet admits his new collection, Talk of Happiness, documents failure. The book, Penna says, “is ultimately dedicated to falling short”: the end of a marriage, an ill-conceived religious conversion, and the death of a close friend, are all explored in one of the most astonishing sonnet sequences by an American poet in the last fifty years. Arranged by seasons, the book can be read as a continuous narrative and meditation, or as separate glimpses of mourning and illumination. In its daring and compassion, Talk of Happiness approaches the work of Donne or Hopkins in its searching spirituality, while also questioning the use and ability of poetry—whether as reader or writer—to improve our lives, to make us happy. In the end, love and family and the close appreciation and observation of the natural world are what revivify, becoming a support for poetry rather than the other way around. “A word keeps coming back,” one poem says, “and what it is who knows.”
From the Author
Soon, very soon, the follow-up to Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji will be released by S4N Books. A lot has happened since I started writing these little songs almost ten years ago, when the aim, like I understand the aim of all mediation and prayer, was to right myself each day. The poems were an opportunity to listen, and, I hope, more than an account of a listening, they are also an opportunity for the reader to listen, too. Poetry, like this, shares DNA with mandalas, those Hindu and Buddhist symbols meant to represent the all of everything. As a book and as a practice, Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji is successful, I think, because, even now, when I look back at those pages, I am pleased with and proud of the results. Of course, no poet can return to the state of mind which brought a book into existence. Neither is it desirable. Whatever state of mind brought Little Songs into the light was addressed and resolved the minute the final eye was dotted, the final tee crossed. So while Talk of Happiness begins where LS<G leaves off and the two books share a number of preoccupations, the hope of the books couldn’t be more different and so, too, then, the effects.
If LS<G is a monument to a certain kind of, albeit humble, success, the poems in Talk of Happiness document failure. Here I sought not to right myself each day, but rather to test whether poetry could alter my circumstances. I wanted to know if poetry could make me happy. When I read a number of these poems at a reading, shortly after their composition, a colleague asked during the question and answer portion, whether the experiment worked. Are you happier? she asked. I had to admit, no, it had not worked, I was not happier, and the room laughed, uncomfortably, I guess because of the ironies implicit and explicit in my answer. But, I added, the experience taught me to look at my circumstances with a certain equanimity. I suppose I had the stoics in mind, and, if I could conjure a particular image of the lesson, it would be the Wheel of Fortune. The safest place on that wheel is the hub. The poems, then, centered me, rather than righted me, is what I concluded then, though I doubt this conclusion now.
I wrote the bulk of these poems over the course of three years. Again, like with LS<G I dedicated myself to writing, at least, one poem a day, though frequently I wrote three or four or more a day, revising – sometimes radically – as I went along. The notebooks I kept during that time are filled with quickly scribbled compositions, abandoned drafts, and printouts taped into the pages. I even added to my process, the practice of recording my voice reading the poems, so I could listen to the poems and, thereby, determine which draft best represented the actual utterance as I’d conceived it. Over the course of one major snowstorm, I wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 little songs. Not all of these have made it into the final manuscript. And certainly, many of the poems as poems were failures. Even in a book ultimately dedicated to falling short, the poems inside must achieve a certain level of success as poems.
The book is organized chronologically, like most of my books; however, there is one difference. While it may seem that the poems move, like we assume time does, in a linear fashion, actually the sequence is cyclical. Each section (there are four of them) is numbered I-IV and titled like so: Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer. But within these sections, the poems are arranged by date of composition without any consideration for the year of composition. The effect or the argument, then, concerns the cyclical nature, not only of time but of moods and weathers. The book, therefore, can be read in any number of ways, that is, from first page to last, but also from the last section through the first and on. One might even dip in as one pleases. Or find the season you’re in, and intuit which poem best suggests the complement. The poems aren’t a calendar, but more like a series of landscapes and still-lives arranged to mirror what a window frames.
Like with most sonnet sequences, read them chronologically and a narrative emerges. With Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji, you can perhaps just make out the silhouette of the story, not just of my spiritual coming into being, but also of my first marriage, several important losses, including the death of a good friend, mentor and fellow poet, and a hasty and ill-conceived conversion to Christianity (specifically, I became a member of the Episcopal Church). Perhaps it’s best to think of Talk of Happiness, if the narrative behind the poems concerns anyone at all, as the unraveling of what Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji attempted to knot. It is first and foremost, now that I read it with some distance, a documentation of my first marriage falling apart and the several storms, both literal and figurative, that seemed to come to destroy it. Secondly, the book is a document of my shifting perspective on the divinity and poetry’s place in all that. TOH, finally, is the story of all kinds of love failing, and my attempt to recover that love and, failing that, make some peace with the loss.
The last difference between TOH and LS<G is the absence of my erstwhile imaginary friend, Genji. It’s not that communications with Genji dried up. There are, indeed, two more cycles of Genji poems, “To an Imaginary Friend” and “Genji in Paradise,” but I thought it best to leave those for a future volume. Maybe I’ll call it All of Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji.
About the Author
Adam Penna lives in East Moriches, New York, and teaches at Suffolk County Community College. He is the author of Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji, as well as the chapbooks The Love of a Sleeper and Small Fires, Little Flames. His poems have appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including Cider Press Review, The Basilica Review and Verse Daily. His is online at http://www.adampenna.com.
To the House of the Sun, by Tim Miller
“An incredibly well executed epic saga in a poetry format, To The House Of The Sun is complex, with manifold characters, plot developments, and internal rhythms. Simply stated, To The House of the Sun is a literary phenomenon on a scale with the Iliad or the Odyssey.” — Midwest Book Review
To the House of the Sun
by Tim Miller
An incredibly well executed epic saga in a poetry format, To The House Of The Sun is complex, with manifold characters, plot developments, and internal rhythms. Simply stated, To The House Of The Sun is a literary phenomenon on a scale with the Iliad or the Odyssey. A critical success, To The House Of The Sun is especially appropriate for academic library Literary Studies and Poetry Studies reference collections and supplemental studies reading lists. —Midwest Book Review
[…] Tim Miller has joined a select group of quirky poets who feel called to contend with a neglected form, the book-length narrative poem, and what he does with it is brilliant. […]
To the House of the Sun evokes millennia of faith, storytelling, and scholarship simply by committing to its orthography: from its first lines, it looks like the typed-up notes of a young scholar seized by inspiration as he transcribes and translates a cryptic inscription. Look closer, though, to see the designs of a careful poet: these lines mark where the singer’s words intersect time; alliteration evokes a sense of place (“the sands of Savannah facing the sea”); and psalmic repetition gives them incantatory power, affirming poetry’s roots in enchantment. This could be Gilgamesh, King David, or Hildegard of Bingen, and Miller honors that ageless mysticism here. To the House of the Sun sounds and feels like an ancient text, layered with fragments of sources and traditions, a pastiche that takes familiar poems and scriptures and stories and weaves them into something inspiring and fresh. […]
Clearly this isn’t the Civil War of TV movies or weekend reenactors or even poignant Ken Burns fiddle-whispers. What Conrad sees is overwhelming: Miller wants to humble you with the unfathomable number of lives affected by the war. There are so many stories here—sometimes rendered in just a few words or a handful of lines—about tortured black men, murdered prisoners, doomed soldiers seeking solace in prostitutes, mothers in mourning, baffled ghosts, even a priest who can summon water from the earth. For all I know, Miller’s approach may be unprecedented in Civil War fiction. There are no stock characters or cartoon souls; everyone gets a distinctive few lines, a defining moment, an acknowledgement of their fleeting humanity set against the infinite. […]
As To the House of the Sun progresses, the smoke and blood of the Civil War recede, giving way to a series of dizzying visions, a revelation that blurs Blake, Eliot, the Bhagavad-Gita, Celtic myth, and a whirlwind of mystical traditions into a statement about the place of each of us in the divine. But as trippy and transcendent as his poem can be, Miller doesn’t want it to be obscure. […]
I can’t write a proper review of To the House of the Sun. Dear reader, you already know if you’re inclined to relish a 33-book epic set during the Civil War, inspired by the world’s great religious and literary texts, and offering prophetic glimpses of the divine. I loved it, not only because it’s proudly noncommercial and defies everything that’s trendy right now in entertainment, poetry, and the culture at large, but also because it offers a hard, humane vision that tries to disturb and inspire you into wanting to be better than you are. Reading and writing are not, by themselves, moral acts, and we often ascribe more virtue to them than they deserve, but To the House of the Sun is proof that a lifetime of the right kind of reading really can lead to enlightenment—and sometimes, a genuine act of creation.” —Jeff Sypeck (read the full review here)
To the House of the Sun ranks among both the most curious and the most ambitious literary products to come out of Pittsburgh this year. The 360-page epic poem set during the Civil War is both strikingly original and, by author Miller’s enthusiastic acknowledgement, grandly derivative.
It’s the story of a young man named Conrad, Irish-born son of a slaveholding Savannah, Ga., clan, who in 1862 strikes out on what becomes a cross-country quest of sorts. As it begins, with the Civil War in full swing around him, he’s nominally in search of his long-gone father, to fulfill a promise he made his recently deceased mother. One complication is that Conrad is bereft at the death of his fiancée, who was killed by that same father.
The narrative is stream-of-consciousness, picaresque, told through Conrad’s eyes as he heads first north, as far as New Jersey, then cuts across the Midwest to California. The language is lush, sometimes metaphysical, in free but incantatory verse. Early sections grapple with destiny, slavery, grief, rage and the lure of the sea. “& the new recruits are all confidence,” Miller writes, describing Conrad watching soldiers shipping out, “& even if some of them know they’ll never again behold mother or sister or land, they turn away with fugitive grins to wait intently for the train, & some great glory.”
A key distinction of this fat and fascinating paperback is that its final 260 pages are all appendices and footnotes in which Miller obsessively documents the sources and inspirations he drew upon for ideas, images and phrases in his text, from the epic of Gilgamesh and the Bible to Irish folklore, Civil War diaries and the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Yet while To the House of the Sun is quite accessible, and wholly its own work, it is dense and sophisticated enough to be worthy of its copious source materials. —Pittsburgh City Paper (review also available here)
An “impressive and monumental work.” —Ronald Schuchard, Professor of English Emeritus, Emory University, and General Editor of the Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot
A book like this is absolutely unprecedented in our time. Like the Iliad, it uses poetry, solemnly and beautifully, to capture the most tragic era in American history, the Civil War. There is an exquisite, terrible and very human beauty woven throughout all its pages. We walk with Orpheus, with Odysseus, with Dante in the Inferno of soul-immolating tragedy, in the immortal search for spiritual meaning in world that often drifts toward nightmare—yet the poetry, the paradoxical seal of immortality redeems us all. This is a redemptive book. Read it thoroughly and well, and your life will be ennobled and enriched. —Stephen Larsen, co-author of A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell, and director of the Stone Mountain Center
As the product of a union between a minister and an elementary school teacher, my childhood was steeped in ancient literature – everything from Bible stories to European myths and African folk tales. Add to that my teenage fascination with medieval English literature and my resulting foundation in classic texts made it possible for me to appreciate the massive scope of Tim Miller’s research for To the House of the Sun, a novel-in-verse set in America’s Civil War era.
Miller’s book-length poem opens with Conrad mourning the murder of his wife at the hands of his father. The image-rich language flows easily as he decides to walk away from Savannah, all but shaking the dust off his proverbial sandals when he leaves. Miller’s poetics twist around the mind like his character winds around the South, allowing the reader to experience visceral textures of language and perspective…
And just as the Bible opens with straightforward narrative and ends with surreal images too fantastic for the mind to absorb, so does Miller’s tale. As Conrad continues wandering across the whole of the continent, he first encounters the divine, then absorbs it so fully that he radiates it–like the biblical Moses whose face shone in blinding fashion after a mountain-top conversation with God. Once this transformation takes place, Miller’s language transforms as well into a driving expository force…
To the House of the Sun will take you on a journey from the south to the west, from the sea to the sky, all the while peeling flesh off spirit until all that’s left is the echo of one man’s imagination. —Small Press Book Review
Click here to listen to and download readings from the book.
ABOUT THE BOOK
To the House of the Sun, a long narrative poem in thirty-three books, culminates with a young man’s experience of illumination in the summer of 1865, ascending into the air above California. It begins a few years earlier, on a beach in Savannah, as he broods over the death of his fiancée and the war just beginning to tear the United States apart.
In between, we journey with him through a panorama of America at war: from Georgia through the Deep South, he meets escaped and freed slaves, families facing hardship, and soldiers from the recent battles. In the North, he befriends a weary Walt Whitman, and together they tend to the wounded in Washington, before he leaves the poet and briefly joins the Union Army. After this, he walks West, shedding any identity he may have once had—as an immigrant Irishman, a Catholic, a Southerner, a son—so that what began as an epic of history has slowly become something like a new sutra or gospel, the hagiography of some strange man who appears in the American West teaching, healing, and even raising the dead.
More than a decade in the writing, To the House of the Sun is consciously dependent upon the sacred literature and poetry our own culture is heir to, and following the poem is a generous selection of notes detailing these borrowings, which itself constitutes an anthology of sacred literature and folklore. Built as it is upon the great inherited tradition of history and religion, in the end the entirety of the poem becomes one of those very stories itself, as well as a song of suffering and love, and finally of empathy.
Hymns & Lamentations, by Tim Miller
Hymns & Lamentations
by Tim Miller
0979870720 / 978-0979870729
About the Book
Hymns and Lamentations is a meditation on the supposedly conflicting realities of deep faith and great suffering. It takes its place in the long tradition of religious literature where a personal relationship with the divine is embraced and swum through, while the equally great reality of suffering and injustice questions the very nature of belief and of God.
The fifty Lamentations are the barest outcries of a baffled humanity, and taken largely from the narratives of twentieth-century genocide and slavery (although they could stand for any time). The final eleven Lamentations constitute a sustained expression of grief over the destruction of the human body, of the soul, of belief, and finally over the apparent weakness of God.
Yet following these are fifty Hymns of praise from the point of view of one believer. These are written in the rapture that is the daily presence of God, and here many concepts are quietly taken from the world’s religious traditions—although, as with the Lamentations, “God” is the only word used, and no specific religion is ever named. Where the Lamentations are sparse and agonized, even the saddest hymn is joyful, wordy, and overflowing.
In the words of the author: “I think it’s important for the Hymns and Lamentations to be published together, for the ecstasy and anguish to answer one another, so that the question of suffering is not given a merely cynical or merely optimistic answer. It seems a small book like this can suggest the kind of religious or devotional art that makes faith possible in the first place.”
The result is a somber yet lyrical realism unusual in the work I’ve recently read. “Accessibility” is sometimes used as a synonym for poetic artlessness. Not here. The narrative quality of his language is entirely appropriate to his concerns. These are tastes that now fall well outside the American literary mainstream. His poems are “ambitious” – ambitious in the sense that Donald Hall used the term, to indicate poetry which searches for meaning beyond individual experience, family history, or contemporary events (though it may be grounded in all three). Miller reaches as far as his art can take him, well beyond the circumference of his own experience…. Tim Miller is a rare bird in American poetry, an echo of the mid-20thcentury Christian stoicism that has steadily retreated under the assault of pop culture, “prosperity Christianity” and other developments. Since the problem of evil is common across religious (and unreligious) lines, his work deserves a wide readership. Long may he write. Read the entire essay here
The lamentations come first, all tidily numbered from 1 to 50. The first 39 are powerful stuff and, if you have normal feelings, will hit you in the gut. For those among us who try to maintain a cool distance from their inner emotional beings, this is a severe challenge. Miller writes powerfully but note that his torment is that of a religious believer who must reconcile the notion of a just God with the evil of this world. An atheist would not have this problem and neither would a deist because they respectively do not believe in a deity or [believe] in one that abides in a state of indifference to the worlds that resulted from the godly creation. So it is easier for this range of disbelief/belief to handle these times when “God blinked.” Miller’s evocations of massacres are searing as his hymns are uplifting and will give strength to believers. The secular humanist will give due credence to Miller’s humanity.
Midwest Book Review
Hymns & Lamentations is a thoughtful collection of writings over the cruelty of life and how faith can help you endure the worst of it all. For those looking for the strength of life to face the worst of it, “Hymns & Lamentations” is a choice pick.
Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji, by Adam Penna
Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji
Poems by Adam Penna
0979870712 / 978-0979870712
Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji are two sequences of poems where, in the author’s words, he was attempting daily to “right” himself.
The poems of Little Songs take an unrhymed sonnet form that looks back to the religious work of Donne and Hopkins, and the autobiographical element in Dante’s New Life, to weave a spiritual meditation on the natural world and the sacred minutiae of everyday living. In each poem we are shown suburban streets, homes, and front-yards, and the trees and animals and human inhabitants that fill those spaces, all presented through the mind of the quietly-seeing poet. What we emerge with is a evocation of a world akin to Wallace Stevens’s vision of New Haven, alive with eternity.
The poems in Lyrics to Genji are filled with the same subjects, but approach them more playfully. Addressed to an invisible friend named Genji (a name which means “treasure”), the poet begs answers to the universal and mundane questions of his day (“Genji, do you have a brother?”, “Who could bear a full life, Genji?”), and ruminates over recurring dreams, childhood memories, questions of ethical responsibility as well as home repair, and the frequent, mischievous presence of Genji’s wife. Whereas Little Songs approaches something like direct prayer, Lyrics to Genji come closer to Zen meditations, or koans.
The overall vision of this unique collection is one of abiding mystery and gratitude for the natural and invisible worlds, and for a state of quiet contemplation that brings such awareness about. As the poet says to his friend: “I’m grateful, Genji./How do I know?/I sing.”
George Held, Book/Mark
LITTLE SONGS & LYRICS TO GENJI is arguably one of the better books by a Long Islander since Leaves of Grass appeared on July 4, 1855, but whereas Whitman is a rhapsodist of long free-verse lines, Penna is a psalmist of concise formality. While Whitman renovated poetry, Penna builds on the tradition of religious lapidaries like George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins. And whereas Whitman celebrates the self, Penna invites God to enter his soul.
This volume holds two books in one, and either would be a small treasure on its own. The first, “Little Songs,” hearkens back to Donne’s Holy Sonnets. Though Penna’s sonnet form has the requisite 14 lines of approximate iambic pentameter, it is unrhymed in the manner of Robert Lowell’s Notebooks. Moreover, Penna divides his sonnets into various stanza patterns, the usual 4, 4, 3, 3 as well as alternatives such as 3, 3, 4, 4 and 3, 4, 4, 3 and 5, 5, 4.
In spirit these songs inhabit their epigraph, from Wallace Stevens, the part that says, “Poetry is like prayer.” Addressed to a “you,” at times maybe Moira, the book’s dedicatee and the poet’s wife, at other times the poet himself, these poems concern God, prayer, and love and how they mesh with the rest of life, frequently symbolized by trees and birds and birdsong. Penna’s elemental meditations should encourage readers who despair over the narcissism and egotism of much other contemporary poetry.
LITTLE SONGS contains fifty pieces, divided into two parts of twenty-six and twenty-four poems respectively. The first part introduces the vocabulary and symbology of the whole, and the second part elaborates on those elements. Thus, Part II opens with “Songbirds,” which begins,
It is like you, because your heart is a bird,
to be frightened and dart over the ground,
when nothing hurts you, nothing lies in wait.
You flit, from tree to tree, because you think
love is a motion toward, but stillness loves
and stillness sets the heart back on its perch.
The title of this poem plays off one called “Birdsong” in Part I, in which the poet refers to “small languages of trees and birds.” “Songbirds” goes on to say that song is “the one thing that is pure and true,” the achievement of which is Penna’s aim in these “little songs.” Yet “songs aren’t . . . praise . , aren’t prayers … , aren’t love. . . . They don’t prepare a way for you to die. // They are a lie.” Still, he advises, “Keep on singing. Soon the truth [that song is a lie] will break your heart.”
Taking his own advice, Penna continues to sing eight more songs before LITTLE SONGS ends. Among the more memorable are the psalmic “This World Is Good,” the touching “A Gift of Words,” and the paradoxic “Crying for Joy,” the final poem. Like his advice to keep singing though song is a lie, “Crying for Joy” uses paradox to make its point, that the appearance of happiness, say in a bird’s song, can be superficial—”happy notes // without an aim”—but that “We make a pattern of [such] appearances./ We wear our hair as if we were a bird / crying for joy to make something of our tears.” What a great note on which to end LITTLE SONGS, the poet/maker confessing that beneath the birdsong that informs these poems lies a sadness that poetsong seeks to transform into something affirmative.
In LYRICS TO GENJI, Penna moves from the enclosure of the sonnet to a freer verse form, with shorter lines and longer poems addressed to Genji, a sort of muse, alter ego, and older friend, whose name (which means “two beginnings” in Japanese) occurs at least once in each piece. The poet alternately cajoles, teases, and queries Genji, whose appearance is like a grandfather’s. In particular, the poet asks Genji about God and gods: “what god listens to that clanging [of church bells] / and doesn’t feel annoyed?”
To illustrate the relationship between the poet and Genji, let me closely read poem 3 from this set of 77. Here is the entire poem:
Genji, I’m sorry for you.
I live in a house.
When the wind blows
through the house, I know.
But you have to go on guessing.
When you come in
the answer has just left.
When you go out again,
the answer lies in my book.
When, when, when, Genji?
I’m waiting for you to come.
My hands, this time,
knead earnest bread. It rises now
in a cool, dark place. It asks
like a hermit to be left alone.
Then, it does invisible work.
Of the sixteen lines here, twelve are end-stopped, a very high percentage in contemporary verse. Monosyllables predominate; from “for you” (line 1) through “guessing” (5), twenty-two consecutive onesyllable words occur, and five more follow. Besides “Genji,” only ten other two-syllable words (“answer” twice) occur, and in the last line, the keyword, “invisible,” gains emphasis by having four syllables. The “invisible work” here is the rising of the seeker-poet’s creative spirit, with which his hands “knead . . . bread” (13), with its pun on “need,” in the “cool, dark” (14) mind of the poet. And the result is the poem itself, which arises from the divine afflatus—”the wind [that] blows / through the [poet’s] house” (3-4).
But Penna teases Genji with the thought that the poet is superior to the muse, for after the muse departs the poet has “the answer” to the repeated question “when,” “in my book” (9), as the appearance of this poem 3 and the rest of the LYRICS, attests. In a sense, then, this poem is an “ars poetica,” a text on how Penna makes his poetic art. Through his deceptively simple clarity, he recalls the line of great monosyllabic poets like Donne and John Clare, Stephen Crane and Frost, and the recent American poet laureate Kay Ryan.
Finally, a word in praise of S4N Books, a small press in Brooklyn that specializes in spiritual books, for having the editorial acumen to select Adam Penna’s manuscript for publication. The press did a beautiful job of making these serious poems into a book, one that has given me great pleasure through several readings and that will stay on my shelf in easy reach.
George Held, a former Fulbright lecturer and six-time Pushcart nominee, is the author of 13 poetry collections. He is widely published in small press journals and his work has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. He is a frequent contributor to Book/Mark.
Midwest Book Review
A poem can be a self-induced therapy. Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji is in a way, two volumes of poetry, as Adam Penna presents two trains of thought on his works of poetry. The Little Songs half focuses on the spiritual side of the world, while Lyrics to Genji focuses on friendship and memories, among other subjects. Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji is a unique team of poetry, highly recommended.
From the Author
Originally posted here
Next month, S4N Books releases my first full-length collection of poems, Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji. Actually, the book contains not one full-length collection, but two long sequences. The first, “Little Songs,” is a series of sonnet-like poems presented in the order in which they were written. The second, “Lyrics to Genji,” addresses an imaginary friend named Genji. These, too, are presented in the order in which they were written, and try to explore the same material “Little Songs” do, but from another, more playful perspective. ”Lyrics to Genji” is a response to a rejection letter I received after submitting some of the “Little Songs” to a magazine where I had always had luck publishing. The editor of the magazine wrote me a handwritten note suggesting, for his tastes, my little songs were too sad.
When I began to write the little songs, the aim was merely to right myself each day. These poems served as daily meditations, and so if they take a more spiritual or even devotional tone this is one of the reasons. If you read the rest of the blog, you’ll see that, indeed, the poet’s attitude toward the spirit and the divine is a preoccupation of mine. Further, I have suggested it ought to be a central concern for all poets and readers of poetry. I can’t imagine an entirely secular poetry worth reading. Every poet, and this ought to be especially true of American poets, I think, is a religious poet. I mean religious, of course, in the widest possible sense of the word, and mean it to include those affiliated with a certain brand of religion and those who have found what suffices elsewhere.
It may be fair to say that this book, beginning with the little songs and ending with the lyrics, are the narrative of my spiritual attitudes as they developed over the course of more than a year. My spirit has been and continues to be restless and curious. And I find the more I search the more certain I am there is something to be found, and the more certain I am that almost all of my previous notions have been just as misguided as they have been earnest. In fact, while it is safe to say that these poems accurately catalogue a desire for truth, they are also a chronicle of failures. They must be, because even the best poems must fail. However close they come, that which a poem seeks to define always lies just beyond its power to say. It is because of this that Whitman calls for strong readers. Strong readers are ones that read keeping in mind that these are only outlines.
I have written a lot about what the uses of poetry are. It many ways the poems in this book are the proving ground for those ideas. Maybe it is more accurate to say that the entries here are extensions of notions, which were first discovered in these sequences. I have followed the line of thinking, which I first read in Emerson, that says a man might put his faith in the fact that his work will cohere because there is something coherent in being. This, then, isn’t only a literary or poetic faith, but a faith I have found to be true of my actions in the world. These things we do mean something, and it is the job of faith to find what they mean with a full heart, a broken heart, or a heart on the mend. Who could or would avoid such a charge would avoid all of life. Or all of life worth living.
I have said that a poet, because he is a poet, may not be a better person but, because he writes poetry, is a better person than he would otherwise be. I understand that this argument is an especially romantic one, but I mean it with all humility. I didn’t write these poems, neither have I ever put pen to paper, because I thought that what I had to say was worth much to anyone else. The writing of these poems, and all poems, is as selfish an art as one might endeavor to perfect. And yet I can’t help but think that, at its best, poetry makes it possible, if nothing else, for the self, the weary, the silly and self-seeking atom, to escape those traps and blind alleys and find, in the end, the paradise it wanted to find. I have not come to that walled-garden yet, but already I smell the fragrance of joy. Perhaps it is just beyond. Perhaps it is all around.
About the Author
Adam Penna lives in East Moriches, New York, with his wife, and teaches at Suffolk County Community College. He is the author of The Love of a Sleeper (Finishing Line Press, 2008), and his poems have appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including Cider Press Review, The Basilica Review and Verse Daily. His blog is at adampenna.com.
Dante the Maker, by William Anderson
Dante the Maker
by William Anderson
0979870739 / 978-0979870736
About the Book
Upon its initial publication in 1980, William Anderson’s Dante the Maker won the Silver PEN Award, and has since been hailed by R. W. B. Lewis as “The best and most thorough biography [of Dante] in English.”
Dante has been called “the central man of all the world” because he represents in perfect balance “the imaginative, moral, and intellectual faculties all at their highest.” In his Divine Comedy Dante introduced a new way of presenting human characters which was permanently influenced all later forms of narrative and drama. This work not only affected history directly but offered people of all generations a new ideal to which they should aspire. Dante invented modern literature by making contemporary characters and events the subject of art: he changed the future by his reinterpretation of the past. William Anderson’s exciting and original biography (winner of the Silver Pen International PEN Club Award) makes extensive use, for the first time, of Dante’s own descriptions of his creative process, his inspirations and the ways in which he interpreted them. Though likely to be invaluable to the student of Italian literature and to the innumerable lovers of Dante, the book will also, by its emphasis on the creative act, fascinate everyone who is interested in the sources of art.
R. A. Shoaf, Speculum
“The life of Dante is the kind of story that reminds us why history and biography are so important to what we do. Even with all the gaps, with all the unanswered and unanswerable questions, the story is so rich in detail and meaning that it cannot fail to excite and disturb us, outrage and inspire us. And William Anderson has told it in such a way as to let it produce all these effects. His enthusiasm for Dante and the Commedia is irrepressible; it shines through practically every page of his long, eloquent, and in the best sense of the word personal book.”
Joan M. Ferrante, Renaissance Quarterly
“[William] Anderson is also concerned with Dante as a poet, with the transformation of all the material of his life, his world, his education, into the poem. This encyclopedic study follows Dante’s life and work more or less chronologically, attempting to give the reader a sense of contemporary history, science, religion, and literature-in short everything Dante might have experienced and drawn upon…. the author has consulted many early as well as modern sources, and I am sure that scholars will find new references in areas they do not know well. …I find intriguing the suggestions that Dante might have known the works of Hildegard of Bingen, that he attempted a proto-Commedia in canzone form, that the De vulgari eloquentiai is constructed in a series of descending triads, even if some of the details do not seem to fit. There are also many interesting anecdotes in the historical passages, and many enlightening observations in the literary criticism, e.g., the treatment of the spiral journey in Purgatory, as opposed to the movements in Hell and Paradise, the statement that in Paradise every movement of the blessed is transfigured into art, that Peter’s image of the sewer feeding human sin to Satan recapitulates the cosmology of the poem. Perhaps the author’s basic assumption–with which I entirely agree–that the Comedy was conceived as a whole, with a detailed plan before it was written, led to his attempt to fit every aspect of Dante’s life and culture at each stage into a particular place in that plan, which inevitably created some distortions. Perhaps his attempt, as a poet, to understand and explain the process of creation makes his study more subjective than one expects in Dante studies.”
Financial Times of London
“…tirelessly, exuberantly interesting.”
“… a joy to read!”
“…a fine volume, a real contribution…. Highly recommended.”
About the Author
William Anderson was an historian and a poet whose knowledge and understanding of Dante was informed by these two perceptions. He translated a number of works, including Dante’s Vita Nuova and Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, and edited Froissart’s Chronicles in Lord Berners’ translation. His historical and architectural interests combined in Castles of Europe, Cathedrals in Britain and Ireland, Holy Pl aces of the British Isles, The Rise of the Gothic and Green Man. His last book, The Face of Glory, is a synthesis of much of his thought about creativity and the connections between artistic and scientific inspiration.
He received three literary prizes, including the Silver Pen award for Dante the Maker.
He died in 1997, aged 62, continuing to write poetry to the end of his life. On his tombstone are his own words, We are the notes of the song, not the singer, and the Dantean accolade William Anderson – Poet.
We’ve often thought the opening verses from the Book of Ezekiel are the best example of what we’re looking for: “Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.”
The directness of this is astonishing: there is no background material, no anxiety over seeming ridiculous or pretentious, no worry about alienating the reader. There is simply the arresting inspiration of something so important and meaningful and full of emotion and intensity that it needs to be said.
We were dismayed to find one recent critic, in a book about T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, say that for Eliot and his contemporaries “it was axiomatic that a poem communicated ‘emotion’ … [while] for us today, a poem is an artifact of language.” S4N Books exists partly under the assumption that, on the contrary, powerful writing in general isn’t just an artifact of language, but is as good a way as any of expressing emotion, of creating and conveying meaning.
Not to condemn most modern writing for seeming distant and theoretical, or simply happy to wallow in irony, or happy to merely shock with its contents, or terribly worried at how little words can really mean, but it’s not what we’re looking for. We want some stab at Divine Vision, and inevitably look back to much older works to find this—the Ancient Near Eastern authors of Gilgamesh, the earliest Egyptian burial rituals, or Jewish scripture; the Hindu Rig Veda and Upanishads; Greek tragedy, Roman historians, Virgil and Dante and the Norse Eddas. But writers of recent memory also come to mind—Whitman, Jeffers, Kafka, Eliot and Stevens.
In this way we aren’t too particular on what you send us. While we tend more toward long poems or sequences, we’re simply looking for any writing at all that has the spirit of the works we’ve mentioned—poems, novels, nonfiction, etc.