Dan Chiasson’s fourth collection of poetry is Bicentennial.
 He teaches at Wellesley. (June 2016)

All the Songs Are Now Yours

Prince performing at a music festival in Rio de Janeiro, 1991
In 1939, the American composer Aaron Copland published his music appreciation guide, What to Listen for in Music. Its presumptions were suggested by its title. “Listening” was an arduous exercise in concentration, best performed in optimal conditions: the concert hall, the quiet parlor. In fact, “listening” was not enough; Copland …

Crossing the Invisible Line

Eileen Myles, 1980; photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe, from the cover of Chelsea Girls
Eileen Myles’s new and selected poems are titled I Must Be Living Twice, a phrase that any poet past the midpoint and looking back might utter, surprised to find a fund of work on the page as robust and spontaneous as any “real” life she lived. But Myles’s poems set a bar for openness, frankness, and variability few lives could ever match; and so in her work, the surprise second life is actually the one lived off the page, refracted through decades of Myles’s astonishingly vivid lines.

‘The Knife There on the Shelf’

Elizabeth Bishop, Brazil, 1954
On Elizabeth Bishop is the Irish writer Colm Tóibín’s exquisite study of the American poet, a book whose modest proportions suggest the personal nature of the connection. Tóibín has written a book he could have carried along with him in the nomadic period this study recalls, when, far from home, …

Comic, Ironic, Grieving

Mark Strand, Joseph Brodsky, Adam Zagajewski, and Derek Walcott in Brodsky’s garden, New York City, 1986
Mark Strand died in November, at the age of eighty, leaving behind his newly published Collected Poems. This seems a bad deal: a man in exchange for a book. But Strand had long explored the feeling of having somehow disappeared into his art, which returned to him a version of …

Prodigal Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan at the Olympia, Paris, May 1966
The opening verses of “Tangled Up in Blue” are among the most famous in Bob Dylan’s repertoire. Readers who know them will find themselves singing along: “Early one morning the sun was shining, I was laying in bed/Wondering if she’d changed at all, If her hair was still red.” Pronouns …

Where’s Brando?

Marlon Brando applying bloody makeup for his role as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, 1954
I was born in 1971, the year before The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris were released, so the first film I saw featuring Marlon Brando was Superman in 1978, in which he plays Jor-El, Superman’s biological father. It was not his finest hour: according to legend, he refused to …

‘Making Real What We Cannot See’

Ellar Coltrane as Mason, age six, in Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood
It is a commonplace to say that time moves more rapidly now than it did, say, twenty years ago: information is allegedly super-compressed, as in texts and tweets, the “news cycle” has shortened from a day to an hour to a minute, fashions flare and peter out in the blink of an eye. But twelve years are always going to be twelve years when measured on the human face. Boyhood is, among many other things, an assertion of time’s stateliness against the fidgets and spasms of contemporary experience.

‘So Fluid, So Limpid, So Musical’

Charles Wright, 1991
If you want to sample the work of Charles Wright, the nation’s new poet laureate, the best place to start may be Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems, a collection whose marvels culminate in selections from Wright’s fine book Sestets (2009). Wright is sometimes thought of as a writer of wisdom literature, …

Design for Long-Term Living

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight
Before Midnight extends Richard Linklater’s extraordinary sequence of films, begun eighteen years ago with Before Sunrise and continuing, nine years later, with Before Sunset. The films follow the ups and downs of a young couple, Céline and Jesse, played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. They first meet at the …

Go Poets

The instant of a winning goal by the New York Cosmos for the championship of the North American Soccer League, Giants Stadium, 1978
One big intervention modern poetry made was to change our sense of the word “song,” which for aeons was a relatively uncomplicated synonym for “poem.” Surely poets couldn’t simply “sing” in the midst of war, chaos, historical belatedness, mass production, bottomless anxiety—all the bad things that supposedly came into the world after the moment in 1910 when, as Virginia Woolf put it, “human character changed.” It was about that time that the onslaught of anti-songs began.

Nowhere Fast

               1. Give me your secret. I can keep it. I’ll become it.                2. The way ski racers Lining up Become the race:                3. Look what was put Into the pot And what came out!                4. The way each choice That made itself …

‘The Absurdity of Straight Men’

James Wolcott, 2013
James Wolcott’s Critical Mass is, among other things, a guide through the wilds of YouTube. One way to read this book is in front of a computer screen, where many of Wolcott’s subjects, so memorably captured in his antic prose, can be experienced firsthand. He is the preeminent critic of …

‘A Dog with Wings’

Charles Simic, Córdoba, Spain, April 2011
Charles Simic’s Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell was reissued in 2011 and now is followed by the publication of his New and Selected Poems: 1962–2012. The two books together give us a rich picture of Simic’s art: like Cornell’s boxes, Simic’s poems are little rectangles full of surprising …

The Muse Makes Mischief

Anne Carson, New York City, 2013
Red Doc> is the poet Anne Carson’s “sequel” to her novel in verse, Autobiography of Red, which told the story of Geryon, the red monster slain by Herakles in one of his lesser-known labors. Carson’s Geryon was a contemporary boy; he was gay, art-inclined, and, as he knew from reading …

The ‘Stoned Gallantry’ of Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen, Royal Albert Hall, London, May 1976
Leonard Cohen’s songs mix the sleazy and the sacred in ways that break down both categories. This music, delivered in Cohen’s nasal non-voice, often played on cheap synthesizers, shoddily produced, sometimes badly recorded and unreliably distributed, nevertheless finds unlikely access to words like “holy,” “saint,” and “prayer” as though to …

The Actual Hawk, the Real Tree

Jorie Graham, Écrammeville, France, March 2011
Place is Jorie Graham’s twelfth book of poems, her first since Sea Change in 2007. The title recalls an earlier volume, Region of Unlikeness, but the word “place” all on its own is so bland as to be a seriously polemical title for a book: we can think of many …

A Wild Ride Through America

Robert Pinsky lecturing at Boston University, 2001
Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems surveys an extraordinary career in poetry, now nearly forty years in the making. Pinsky is a “public poet,” as everyone always says. And yet his poems, in meeting American mass culture halfway, often seem to refuse to take even one step further. American poetry, as he …


Rosanna Warren
Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s Heavenly Questions is a book-length elegy for her husband, the philosopher Robert Nozick, who died of cancer in 2002. If we expect grieving to be primal and direct, Schnackenberg is the American poet perhaps least suited to expressing it. She writes in a style that would please a …

‘A Vanguard of Friends’

Larry Rivers: Pyrography: Poem and Portrait of John Ashbery II, 76 x 58 inches, 1977

Tibor de Nagy, the iconic midtown gallery, has been celebrating its sixtieth anniversary with a show that doesn’t so much trace its history as distill its early essence. “Painters & Poets” includes drawings, chapbooks, letters and well-known paintings that emerged from the fantastic collaborations between Frank O’Hara and Larry Rivers, O’Hara and Joe Brainard, Brainard and John Ashbery, James Schuyler and Grace Hartigan, among many others. The energy of the poets drove those projects, yet often the painters made them sit still and keep their mouths shut, as we see in the many striking portraits in this show of poets reading, writing, sitting there, spacing out, in every phase of dress and undress. Other times, they inspired one another to produce works—like Hartigan’s series of paintings made in response to O’Hara’s poem “Oranges”—that drew from their complementary strengths. “The strangeness of the collaborative situation,” wrote Kenneth Koch, another mainstay of the group, “might lead them to the unknown, or at least to some dazzling insights at which they could never have arrived consciously or alone.”

High on the Stones

The Rolling Stones, with Mick Jagger at front left and Keith Richards at front right, performing in Philadelphia, 1975
The temptation for most memoirists is to beef up, at times even to make up, life; for Keith Richards, who has lived one of the most eventful and excessive lives ever, the point is to tamp it down. His is an odd book for many reasons, among them its refusal to impute any meaning to the structure of experience, beyond its basic contingency. The book tells no “story,” presents no overwrought “themes,” proposes no shape to life beyond the amorphous ooze of passing time. Thus the hilariously nonchalant title, Life, which, shorn of the expected first-person possessive, would suggest that Richards’s life is more or less the one we all experience.

‘Rude Ludicrous Lucrative’ Rap

A mural of the murdered rapper Tupac Shakur by the graffiti artist Andre Charles, 
Houston Street, New York City, 1997
In 1993, in Los Angeles, a funeral was held for the word “def,” the old-school hip-hop term. Rick Rubin, the impresario who founded Def Jam Recordings in 1984 in his dorm room, presided. Al Sharpton delivered the eulogy. “Def was kidnapped by mainstream corporate entertainment and returned dead…. When we …

The Poet of Happiness

Jack Gilbert, Northampton, Massachusetts, 2007
At eighty-five, Jack Gilbert has published just his fifth short collection of poems. Once, around 1962, Gilbert seemed poised to become ubiquitous. His first book, Views of Jeopardy, had won the Yale Younger Poets Prize and was published to wide acclaim. He himself looked great: commanding, intense, a little wounded.

The Playful, Grumpy, Over-Literate, Fixated, Flummoxed Brain of Stephin Merritt

Stephin Merritt

The Magnetic Fields is the name Stephin Merritt calls the band he often plays with, when he isn’t playing alone or with several other bands he invented. The core group is Merritt and his old friend Claudia Gonson, who started as a drummer but now plays piano, “toys” (wire whisks, xylophone, sleigh bells—it’s a long list), sometimes sings, and, as her day job, manages the band; plus Sam Davol, a former lawyer who plays cello and sometimes flute and sometimes other things, too; and John Woo, a guitarist who often plays banjo. Merritt himself plays just about everything, including ukelele and a Greek instrument called a bouzouki.

The Unfolding Elegy

Anne Carson, New York City, 2003
In 2000, Anne Carson, the Canadian poet and classicist, learned that her long-estranged brother Michael had died in Copenhagen. It took two weeks for Michael’s widow to deliver the news: she said she had had trouble finding Anne’s number among his things. Michael’s funeral had already been held, his ashes …

‘A Hat off a Yacht…’

James Schuyler, Calais, Vermont, late 1960s; photograph by Joe Brainard
James Schuyler is a supreme poet of articulated consciousness. His poems are set inside the mind but translated out of mentalese: their plot is mental but their script is companionable, even chatty. John Ashbery, our poet extraordinaire of mentalese, once affectionately griped that his friend “made sense, dammit”: not a …