David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Is Poetry Ready for Pandora?


Granted my affliction does not in any way parallel the gravity of close friends who aren’t so much battling but, as Christopher Hitchens put it, being battled by cancer, and fatally, I fear, but my affliction, by contrast, my woe, is, to be perfectly honest, more like a pain in the ass. I call it an affliction because of an appetite for hyperbole that derives from the Texan in me, expatriate that I am, that still abides — as Bill Moyers once noted of his former boss, “Hyperbole was to Lyndon Johnson what oxygen is to life.”

It’s my eyes. They’ve been going bad for decades. I’ve spent something close to two grand on drugstore cheaters over all this time likely. I know: I’m lowballing. But I’ve been replacing broken or lost specs since my early twenties. For the last ten years, I’ve always bought enough so that I can leave a pair in every room in the house. And, still, these go missing too.

Then today, after years of swearing to act and have my eyes checked — to act as a way to delineate myself — I ponied up nearly the same amount of dosh for two pair of progressive lenses so that I’d have an fashion option with my eyewear as I’ve always had with the variety of cheaters. In the end, sadly, it was good old vanity that leapt into action.

Trying to see out of these new progressives, however, has been a trial today. My head has been jolting up and down like I’m some monocular sparrow, bubbling left to right and against all instinct and a half century of looking, of seeing, by moving my eyes and not my head. All afternoon I’ve been stumbling along the streets of overcast Southeast Portland as if I were motion sick or drunk, practicing reading the advertisements on sides of buses and then quickly looking at a credit card in my hand. All along, using telephone poles to hold myself upright.

If I had just left good enough alone is what I’ve been thinking these last few hours. Been satisfied with my mortality, been unwilling to see differently, or even, well, to see better, clearer. More sharply. Do I need to detect the cuspidate leaves? But then, whoa! Are the flowering buds on those tree branches ten feet above my head about to pop? Can I actually see the buds! Lordy! And then, once again, my head jouncing, oscillating, quavering, and wobbling as my eyes struggle to locate the focal point. Somebody help me. Will this new blur go on like this for weeks? Well, as I say, my affliction does not approach the serious.

Anyway, the little buds are unmoved, unnerved, uninterested.


What I know best is a little thing.
It sits on the far side of the simile,
the like that’s like the like.

~ Charles Wright


While writing this piece I’ve got the Leonard Cohen station on Pandora playing. First up is the Montrealer himself. Followed by Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Rufus Wainwright covering “Hallelujah,” Otis Redding. What I love about these kinds of radio stations is the lateral algorithm: The first song was Cohen’s “I’m Your Man.” But instead of the other songs coming up by tracking words (so that you have, say, songs about men in love or bright moons or just love songs generally), what you get is a connectivity around approaches to subjects, to music, to writing, to singing, to the solitary singer. You’ve listened to Pandora, Spotify, Songza, you know what I’m talking about.

I mean, I’m listening to the sensitive guy, singer-songerwriter station. It’s the solitary mind in a wilderness of hurt and desire.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a place to read poetry the same way? To change our vision of how we access individual poems? I don’t meant to suggest that we murder the book or collection or slender volume approach to publishing and distributing verse, nor to exterminate the chapbook or the Collected Poems, what have you, but to offer the student, fellow poets, good readers, and the general cultural consuming reader a Pandora of poetry. Are you in the mood for sensitive, wandering guy poems? Try the Tomas Transtromer station. In the mood for some siren lady poems? Try the Edna St. Vincent Millay station. Improvisational poetry? Put on the Robert Duncan station.


When Emily Warn and others at the Poetry Foundation invented their superb website and created their popular smart phone and tablet app, as well, in the early years of the 21st century, her idea, as I understood it, was to create a buffet of poetry that you could try out from several approaches, but principally by subject (if you didn’t already know the poet or the title of the poem, that is). The Poetry Foundation’s version of Pandora consists of stations called: Subject, Occasion, Holiday, School, Region, Poetic Term. Read further into one of those categories such as the Occasion station and you can select a substation: anniversary, birth, engagement, farewell, get well, apologies, toasts.

For example, the first page of poems on the anniversary station comes up with the following poets and poems:


Of the gardens of Adonis, Lydia, I love
Most of all those fugitive roses…


What if we got outside ourselves and there
really was an outside out there, not just
our insides turned inside out? What if there…


Didn’t I stand there once,
white-knuckled, gripping the just-lit taper,
swearing I’d never go back?…

A Marriage Poem

Morning: the caged baby…


As naught gives way to aught
and oxhide gives way to chain mail
and byrnie gives way to battle-ax…

Cave Dwellers

I’ve carved a cave in the mountainside.
I’ve drilled for water, stocked provisions
to last a lifetime. The walls are smooth…

Chance Meeting

I know him, that man
walking- toward me up the crowded street
of the city, I have lived with him …

Colors passing through us

Purple as tulips in May, mauve
into lush velvet, purple
as the stain blackberries leave …

crossing into canaan

febrile body I woke into: nightsweats, stink of the toil of living:

where hands could not bear to approach me, the young man fingered …


If, when studying road atlases
while taking, as you call it, your
morning dump, you shout down to    …


Matilde, years or days
sleeping, feverish,
here or there, …

For C.

After the clash of elevator gates
And the long sinking, she emerges where,
A slight thing in the morning’s crosstown glare, …

For Love

Yesterday I wanted to
speak of it, that sense above
the others to me …

in the Catskills again

my wife’s bare footprints on these rocks after
she’s been swimming where the river has dug
a small pool by the road outside Bearsville …

In the Park

This is the life I wanted, and could never see.
For almost twenty years I thought that it was enough:
That real happiness was either unreal, or lost, or endless, …

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple    …

Love Explained

Guy calls the doctor, says the wife’s
contractions are five minutes apart.
Doctor says, Is this her first child? …

Moraine for Bob

You were never a man
in the television sense of the word.

Pied Booty

Glory be to God for sexy things—
For cries of coupled lovers as they bind and bow;
For moles that on her hip’ll make his dolphin swim, …


Now that I have cooled to you
Let there be gold of tarnished masonry,
Temples soothed by the sun to ruin    …

The poems may all relate, in some fashion, to anniversaries. But these poets have nothing in common except the website has anthologized one of their poems that is, in some way at least, connected to the theme of anniversaries. Or the word, “anniversary,” is in one of their poems.

The Poetry Foundation’s approach celebrates topicality, sometimes diction-cality. It enhances diversity, range, and unlikeness, as you can see. That’s OK. I’ve no hostility against the Poetry Foundation’s approach. None at all. It’s brilliant and workable. Amazing really that it can compile these stations from over 10,000 poems. I’ve used it with, I suppose, fleeting regularity. But: the approach also diminishes a more substantive sort of connectivity. It disconnects poets from poets; that is, poets who have something in common. By hitting the anniversary station, I don’t get to see the relationship between, say, looking up again at this list, Robert Creeley and William Carlos Williams. I mean, what is Richard Wilbur doing on the same station as Marge Piercy? Andres Segovia and Jimi Hendrix might come up on the same Pandora station for guitarists who play guitars, but Wilbur and Piercy belong only a poetry Pandora station for poets who write poetry. And that’s the point really of the Poetry Foundation’s algorithm.

Were you to use my fantasy Poetry Pandora and click on, let’s say, the Ellen Bryant Voigt station, you’d get a series of poets who are likely female, white, nostalgic, who write with a prowess for narrative resolution tethered to a quiet, yet fierce swelling of identity. On this station next up: Louise Gluck. Followed by: Emily Dickinson. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Fleda Brown. And perhaps not one of these poems will have the subject of marriage in it, except for the original one by Voigt.


Right now, on my Pandora’s Leonard Cohen station: Neil Young, Bill Withers, Cat Stevens. Three troubadours who are searching and questioning and trying to locate the interventions between the divine and the self. Now, it’s Cat Power covering Cohen.


I’m not just asking questions about how to deliver poetry to readers, or enhancing an understanding of the art through a different lens. I’m not speaking much to the technological opportunity to alter how we might read poetry in the digital cloud-based age. I’m not interested in writing a persuasive essay or trying to persuade you to do anything. But just as I finally decided to change how I see the world with my crazy glasses, I’ve decided I’d like to see connections and disconnections among poets though different lenses, too. And though it’s hard to focus right now, I do think, over time — I’m told to give it two weeks, is that right, you think? — I’ll be seeing the art of poetry clearer and sharper, with more of its cuspidate finiteness.

Because: I fear one of the most debilitating conversations in the world of poetry for decades in the United States has been the contest that pits one aesthetic against another, whether it’s form versus free verse or abstract versus representative verse. Look, there are lots of places on the poetry dial. In music, for example, the country western station is not threatened by the classical music station. There are listeners for both. Those opera listeners need not feel disdain for either country western musicians or country western fans. And those favoring the aesthetic of country western need not feel disdain for either opera singers, designers, and composers or opera fans.

Full disclosure: I’ve spoken with disdain about the poetics for which I have little taste or affection. “This poet has not a shred of talent,” I might have said even once. I’m a terrible offender. But has hating opera improved country western? Hating country western improved opera? Or changed anyone’s mind? Has your vitriol against Billy Collins reduced his readership by even reader? Your disdain for Charles Bukowski? Mary Oliver? Or what about you disinterest in Rae Armantrout? James Schuyler? Lyn Lifshin?


Over on the Boston Review website, to demonstrate the point, there’s a terrific conversation going on about contemporary American poetry. And I do mean it’s terrific. The writers are thoughtful, clarifying, detailed, historic, passionate (though, perhaps, they possess too much “passionate intensity,” me wonders), and engaging. Definitely read it.

Though their debate, I have to say, also reeks of the WWE: EARLIER TONIGHT! A ONE OF A KIND, TWO-RING CAGE FIGHT IN POETICS! The anti-conceptualist has clearly drawn blood against the conceptualists. And now the conceptualists have brought up not one but two rough and tumble fighters into the ring to take on the craggy representational veteran.

Backstory: What happened was this: Cal Bedient published his essay, “Against Conceptualism,” last July. Bedient despairs that somewhere along the way affect replaced emotion in the art of American poetry:

Lovers of paradox, rejoice. Lovers of lyric poetry, dramatic poetry, narrative poetry, you may find yourselves somewhere in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, looking about at the wasted land and asking what happened.

This week, Rachel Galvin and Drew Gardner (the rough and tumble fighters I mentioned) respond. Hat tip to Timothy Donnelly for curating this debate. Here are the new responses: “Lyric Backlash” and “Flarf is Life: The Poetry of Affect.” I’ll be done here in a few more paragraphs, and after that, please, go, check it out. All three writers are honestly and proudly committed to the esoterica of poesia.

Now, on the other hand, Regina, the check out lady at my local grocer, who has a master’s degree in agronomy and who loves to read Robert Creeley and William Stafford and e.e. cummings (this is Portland, remember!), won’t give a fuck about sentences such as:

Psychologically speaking, affect is the observable manifestation of a subjectively experienced emotion in a person. But traditional lyric poetry isn’t an observable manifestation of emotion in this sense.


Language is a darkness pulled out of us.
~ Stanley Plumly


Over on Pandora, I’ve lost the Leonard Cohen mood. I’ve switched to the Gogol Bordello station.

I don’t even know how to describe Bordello’s music. It’s some kind of fire-breathing Gypsy punk, a Bachanallian thrash. Following the first Bordello cut: the Pogues. I’ve heard of them but don’t know their songs. Next: Diego’s Umbrella. Now, I have never heard of them! They sound like, I don’t know, help me…klezmer flamenco? I’ll tell you, they’re awesome. Listening to Diego’s Umbrella, I’m suddenly now better understanding something about the guy I do know, Gogol Bordello. He’s not just strobe light, post-Chernobyl, dance hall music. He’s among a station of anthem-ists because, right on cue, next up is Bordello again with a song called “Underdog World Strike.”

Remember that fantasy Tomas Transtromer Pandora station I mentioned before? Who would follow Transtromer? James Wright. Charles Wright. Yehuda Amichai. Galway Kinnell. John Haines. Venus Khoury-Ghata. Louise Gluck. Anne Hebert. Yves Bonnefoy. Osip Mandelstam. What’s the consequence of reading this way? One, I get to detect trends of a unique kind of solitary singer, as it were.  Two, I get to experience who Tomas Transtromer has influenced in different languages and especially in the United States. Three, I get to appreciate gradations among these poets in focus, temperament, personality, forms, style, subject matter, materials, diction, and more, even as they are all on the same station.

Not in the mood for solo soul-searching across seven continents?

Want something more punk? Let’s head over to the Anne Waldman station and experience poems by Joanne Kryger, Barbara Guest, Diane Di Prima, Eileen Myles. On this station we can see how disillusionment with social mores and gender politics has led to a disillusion with received form and traditional frameworks for uttering a poem.

Not bad, huh? Now those are more fitting lenses through which to see connections in the art and to help you embrace the various poetic styles across the poetry dial, and that’s a vision of A positive framework for reading poetry I can get behind.

David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women, which was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. His book of essays A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry received the Frances Fuller Victor Award. More from this author →