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Thursday, June 18, 2015


jan van munster

Two years of reading difficult writing for an average high school graduate was my preparation for college. Out of the Navy, into school, I liked the English class the best, introducing poetry that was awfully interesting to a kid with no experience in poetry but Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Turns out, I'd recommend them for introductions. They speak in our language. I found a paperback of Robinson Jeffers' Selected Poems in the first week of school. Back in my one-room attic apartment, after homework, I thought I'd read a few of the poems before sleep. No sleep happened. I could not stop reading, read them all and read them all again and again. All night long I lay in the bed, head propped on pillow, reading his poems. They spoke to me. I was in awe of what he was doing with the form. My knowledge of poetry was negligible beyond a few of the Beats. Jeffers was like the next step. I have beside me a small Modern Library, 1935 edition, of The Roan Stallion, Tamar And Other Poems, by Jeffers. Probably found it someplace for fifty cents. Just now read one of his poems selected randomly, Pelicans. Reading just one of his poems after not reading him in a very long time, I see the original attraction to his writing. I like the connections he makes and what he sees in what he's looking at. Thus began a lifetime affection for poetry. 

jan van munster

Several years of reading Twentieth Century American poetry, and poetry from Europe and Asia, I came to a place that when I want to read a poem or a few, I go to an anthology of Chinese poetry, Sunflower Splendor, from beginning to 1975, the date of publication, several translators.  This is my desert island book. Chinese poetry satisfies me like no other. My favorites were written over a millennium ago. Tu Fu lived from 712-770. Han Yu lived from 768 to 824. Han Yu wrote a long poem I've read many times, Southern Mountains. These are the mountains of southern China, semi-tropical. I'd like to show you the whole poem, though will pick a few lines:

          Winter comes with somber silence,
           Ice and snow sculpting in white jade.

           A new sun lights the summits
           Stretching heights and breadths millions of feet.

I've loved this anthology so much, I bought the hardback edition first, then the paperback edition, to save the hardback for later years and wear out the paperback along the way. 

jan van munster

Sunflower Splendor is such a treasure, I needed a shelf copy and a copy for use. I have four copies of the Stephen Mitchell translation of the Tao Te Ching, different editions. Favorite is the one illustrated with ancient Chinese paintings. And there is John Berryman's book of poems, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, 1968, I keep near at hand. Sometimes I want to read a Berryman poem, pick it up, read one, savor it and go on. And from that same time, I recall devouring Robert Lowell's book of poems, Notebook 1967-68. It was in the same time as Norman Mailer's Armies Of The Night and Robert Bly's long poem, The Teeth-Mother Naked At Last, a poem of the American war in Vietnam. I'd heard Bly read it in person, bought a cassette tape of him reading it. Have read it again recently in his new and selected poems, Stealing Sugar From The Castle, released last year. Bly is another of the poets I pick up and read one or two and put it down. I read Bly an awful lot in the late Sixties, early Seventies. Haven't read him much at all since around 1980. Found his selected poems published, and like his later poems quite a lot better than the earlier poems. Not throwing off on the early ones, like Light Around The Body, not at all, but saying he's gone beyond in his maturity. 

jan van munster

I've picked up Louise Gluck's book of collected poems, Poems 1962-2012. Gluck I've followed since her first book of poems, Firstborn. I was glad to see her poems together in one volume. It's so thick, it's kind of intimidating, so much to pick from. I don't like to read poetry books front to back, unless it would be Lowell's, Notebook 67-68. I wanted to touch Louise Gluck's book to pick it up and open it. I let it fall open randomly and read the poem it opened to, Lullaby, p 299, from her book, The Wild Iris, a poem called Lullaby. I want to share three of the lines with you:

Twilight, then early evening. Fireflies
in the room, flickering here and there, here and there,
and summer's deep sweetness filling the open window. 

Reading the entire poem took my breath away. Her poems frequently take hold of me in such a way I inhale and exhale when it is finished, thinking, Where did that come from? It is the same feeling when I stand in front of Robert Motherwell's Elegy To The Spanish Republic, or Monet's water lilies. The kind of thing that makes me say to self, This is the real deal, this is art. I'm recalling a show I saw of Jaap Mooy's drawings by felt-tip black marker, every one of them an astonishment, black squiggles on white. Couldn't stop staring them, had to buy a copy of the paperback book of the show in the gift shop. Gluck's poems do for me what Jaap Mooy's simple drawings did, each one awe inspiring. 

jan van munster himself


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