08 December 2013

countdown to new year's: round 1, day 1

Countdown to New Year's: Round 1, Day 1
Welcome to Round 1, Day 1 of the 2013 Countdown to New Year’s Challenge! Today will feature three double dates. As you read through each date, be sure to click to read each poet’s poem and share your thoughts on which poet came out on top! Remember, each poet should be judged only in comparison with the poet with whom they shared a date (i.e. John Donne should only be weighed against Allen Ginsberg, Shakespeare only against Borges, etc.). Don’t forget: Sharing your votes and thoughts in the comments earns you an entry into a drawing for a work by the ultimate winner ... so share away!

Donne VS Ginsberg

I am introduced to John Donne by our mutual friend, Ben Jonson, who refers to John as “the first poet in the world in some things.” John arrives for our date with a single rose wrapped carefully in what I see is a section of a map—he assures me it is, as I suspect, “a metaphor,” though he refuses to say for what—and a few blank pages for “whatever the evening inspires.” Though John was dismissed in his time by fellow poets—including fellow CTNY competitor Samuel Johnson—as everything from crude and uncouth to talentless and without merit, it was in the early 20th century that appreciation for his work was “rehabilitated” due to appreciation among Modernist poets and readers.

Allen Ginsberg arrives at our meeting spot—an open, hilly field that we’re only told is somewhere along Ireland’s coastland—looking mildly uncomfortable but toting a few notebooks and pens. He presents one set to me somewhat unceremoniously but surprises me by mirroring John’s words: they are, he says, for “whatever the day inspires.” As different as the two poets are, I’m more surprised by Allen, who spends most of the quiet date—we mostly sit and discuss poetics, and work off of each other’s words to compose lines about our landscape and ideologies—steeped more in observation than discourse. When I ask him during a quiet moment how he would like me to remember him after our time together, he states that it’s hard to put the breadth of all he has been thinking and feeling into words, but he has always been someone busy at work “articulating feelings in company.” Even his date “rival,” John, nods in appreciation of the subtlety of this. By the end of our time together, I’m most impressed by the latitudes of both poets’ emotional inner and external discourse; both have worked to woo less with oversentimental speech and more with the quiet, and haunting, and powerful language of feeling spoken in silence.

At the end of our time together Allen hands me a thin notebook in which he has hand-written a copy of “Kaddish.” John bids me unroll the map around the rose, and on the back I see he has written out “An Anatomy of the World.”

Toomer VS Cowper

I’m flown back stateside to meet up with Jean Toomer in Harlem. I’m escorted to our meeting place—a small, dimly-lit and mostly abandoned, jazz cafĂ© that echoes the cultural warmth of a much earlier time—by Bernard Bell, who urges me to consider Jean strongly, if for nothing else than the “haunting, illusive beauty” of his language and poetry. Though he died as a recluse, I’m assured by many of his admirers that he spoke to the world with a depth of emotion and haunting portrayal of culture that spoke volumes both about him as an artist and the world which he wrote. When we meet, Jean comes across as shy, a still lake on the surface, but apparent in his eyes is the bubbling emotion and inner thought of a flowing river. Most of his time with me is, like Allen in the date before his, spent in courteous and curious silence, but every so often he speaks his appreciation of the atmosphere, the gentle music, the history into which we both seem to have stepped as cautious voyagers.

William Cowper has arrived before both of us; he stands out like a sore thumb in the setting, with his powdered hair and mildly stern countenance, but arises and bows with a pleasant air as Jean and I approach. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who recommended William for this challenge, declared him “the best modern poet” in his introduction, and urged me not to be too quick to judge his outwardly serious demeanor. When we all sit, he begins to speak immediately of how this place speaks to him of the soul, and I’m afraid Coleridge may have steered me wrong, until he speaks of his brief affair with a woman named Theodora … suddenly his words take on a deep emotion and it becomes clear that almost above all else he speaks fluidly and fluently that language of emotional complexity that soon has both Jean and I enraptured. During a brief pause for sandwiches, I watch as both poets silently observe each other and the room, and realize that for all their apparent differences they both share the same deep fascination and emotional connection with the world around them that makes the time with them at once subtle and intense.

As we prepare to part ways, Jean presents me with a gently folded sheet of paper onto which his poem “Storm Ending” has been typed. William bows before leaving, and only inclines his head toward a rolled leaf of parchment onto which is written by hand in semi-smeared ink a copy of his “Light Shining out of Darkness.”

Shakespeare VS Borges

In the early evening I walk into Central Park and smile as I hear a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” underway. I wander slowly toward the sound and smile broader when I spot William Shakespeare standing on the outer edge of the crowd, watching with mild awe and unspoken amusement this modern representation of his work. He kisses my hand when we first greet each other, and soon leans toward me and whispers, “In my time, these all would have been men” in an amused tone as he watches a young actress take on the role of Helena. The play is almost over when we meet, but it is clear that William has been here for some time, engaging as much with his play as he does with the crowd and sights around him. William is mildly attentive, but seems distracted by almost everything he sees—everything from a man selling soft pretzels to a couple rolling by on roller blades draws his attention from our conversation and his own play. We spend most of our time together joking and laughing, culminating in my uncontrolled laughter when William loudly yet humorously boos the end of his own work.

As the play ends, we are joined by Jorge Luis Borges. Jorge was recommended to the competition by AndrĂ© Maurois, who wrote me a letter of introduction in which he stated that Jorge was a great writer on the merits of his works’ “wonderful intelligence, their wealth of invention, and their tight, almost mathematical style.” He is as amused by our surroundings as he seems by William, and both settle into a deep literary conversation that leaves me, though a bit excluded, mostly in awe. Borges quickly takes the lead as we walk our way through the expansive park, weaving us along paths and off of them into trees and places we’re sure we shouldn’t be but journey into boldly nonetheless. It is almost the end of our time together before I realize I have hardly interviewed these two poets at all; they have enthralled me in their own questions of each other and the world around them, and in their discussions which themselves weave intricate worlds of wonder. I’m only mildly disappointed that I haven’t had more time to pick either of their brains, but mostly elated that they have both laid their minds so clearly before me anyway.

As we part ways, William carelessly tosses me a half-balled sheet of paper onto which he has scrawled “O Mistress Mine Where are You Roaming?” in a careless hand. Jorge hands me a more carefully written copy of “Sleep.”

Your Turn: Which three poets do you think won the day? Which poems spoke to you, and why? Are there any frontrunners so far in this competition that you hope make it to the end?


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  1. Ginsberg and Donne is a toss-up for me so I'll say Donne. I like underdogs.

    Tomer vs. Cowper...Both these poems are good. One is more traditional rhyme, the other full of imagery. I don't really want to decide between the two but since I do I'll go for Cowper.

    Shakespeare vs. Borges...this one was the easiest to decide. Definitely Borges. His last two lines were the deciding factor for me. I might even like to see him win this whole dating thing.

    1. Thanks, Linda! I felt a little bad for Willy Shakes ... I picked out their poems, and then saw he was up against Borges ... and just felt ... bad, ha-ha. I'm glad I'm leaving more of the choice up to readers this time, though, because my own "biases" don't get to figure as heavily this time! :)

    2. Don't feel bad for 'ol Willy. He's had much glory. This time someone else will have to get the dance with the Princess. ;-)

  2. Ginsberg vs Donne (Donne)
    I do love me some Ginsberg, there's no getting around it. But, I'll be honest...even as quiet as he reportedly was on your date...he still tended to overwhelm me with the sheer amount of his words in "Kaddish". I know the Beats' trademark was often stream-of-consciousness and I admire them for it, especially Ginsberg's brave trailblazing "Howl" but, for the pure restfulness and beauty of creation and creativeness, in this case, I found myself gravitating towards Donne. He has always been a favourite, and even as sombre as much of his work tends to be, I still find much to admire there. The fact that he would bring you his poem written on the back of a map wrapped around a single rose wrapped...oh sigh. Also, his "Death Be Not Be Proud" was one of the first poems I committed to memory so I have a heavy bias toward him perhaps.

    Toomer vs Cowper (Toomer)
    Unfamiliar as I was with either of these poets, I was eager to learn of them both and interested in both the venue and also the attitudes with which they presented themselves. My instinct was to lean toward Toomer - I liked his shyness, his rich imagery in his free verse formed "Storm Ending"...could picture him there in the dimness of the out-dated jazz cafe, could almost hear his soft voice speaking to you of the music, the days gone by...Just as instinctively, I drew back from Cowper and perhaps unfairly but I found "Light Shining out of Darkness" very sing-songy (for want of a better word; in fact I am almost sure I have sung a hymn that has the words that lead off this poem...perhaps that formed my immediate bias) -- I am not totally against rhyming poetry but this, for some reason rubbed me very much the wrong way. He did surprise me pleasantly in the end by leaving you his poem on a piece of parchment, not what I expected at all, but Toomer still takes this bout for me.

    Shakespeare vs Borges (Borges)
    I almost laughed aloud when I read your encounter with the bard in Central Park! This matches closely how I imagine a modern day get together with Shakespeare might go, especially if you were fortunate enough to catch him viewing his own work, and an updated version of it at that...He was so prolific in the short amount of time attributed to his lifetime (no-one really knows for sure how long his life was, do they?) that I've often wondered at his ability to multi-task, and the way you describe his attention being all over the place gives me a good answer...an early example of a high-functioning ADHD guy! Much as I love him (who doesn't love Shakespeare?) - like many poets, I feel over-dosed on him, so was curious and delighted to see the second date of the evening was the great Jorge Luis Borges, someone about whom I've heard loads but really know very little. It was easy for me to imagine Shakespeare and Borges warming to each other and getting into a very involved discussion about their work -- a bit hard for me to imagine them leaving you out actually; I picture them both as being ladies men. Actually one of the most profoundly moving things I've read is the translation of Borges' "Elegy for Borges" - I also love the poem he gave you here, "Sleep" - proof that I don't hate all rhyming poetry. Borges wins this round for me.

    1. Thank you, Sharon! I love the date "engagements" the poets have, as much for how they engage with each other as with me. It's been fun to try to envision how their personalities would work and what they would have been like. Thanks for your input!

  3. 1. I thought I was going to say Ginsberg. I could walk an Irish coastline forever but then I remembered how spazzy I felt after reading him so I'm going with Donne whose simplicity is calming. Plus the metaphor of the map intrigues me and the few blank pages for whatever the evening inspires speaks to my heart. I think I would melt if I went on a date and a guy brought a few blank pages.

    2. I'm going with Cowper. A man who bows to a lady . . . well, he has just presented her with a gift of honor. And he handwrote his poem on parchment. That's a clincher. Even though his poem was rhymie rhymie, I felt that Toomer's was a little bland.

    3. For all the reasons Linda and Sharon mentioned, I'm going with Borges.

    1. Thanks, J.lynn! I like that comparison between what Ginsberg and Donne and how their poetic styles differ.

      It's looking like Borges is a shoe in for advancement! Donne has also earned unanimous approval ... I'm glad there are a few more days for votes; I'm curious to see how others have reacted to these poems!

  4. Hey, Khara. Your site does not like my iPad. Let's see if it'll take the Mac

    1) Compelled to admit I didn't make it through either Ginsberg's or Donne's. Kadish amazed me, and I'm going to have to get back to it. Donne--I prefer him witty, though I've got to say I was impressed as all get out by his couplets. No vote
    2) Toomer. No contest
    3) Shakespere


Thank you so much for your comments! Please feel free to share your thoughts here; I look forward to engaging in conversation with you!

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