Orwell Finally Comments on Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugural Poem

There is a great deal of good bad poetry in English, all of it, I should say, subsequent to 1790. Examples of good bad poems – I am deliberately choosing diverse ones – are “The Bridge of Sighs”, “When all the World is Young, Lad”, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, Bret Harte’s “Dickens in Camp”, “The Burial of Sir John Moore”, “Jenny Kissed Me”, “Keith of Ravelston”, “Casabianca”. All of these reek of sentimentality, and yet – not these particular poems, perhaps, but poems of this kind, are capable of giving true pleasure to people who can see clearly what is wrong with them. One could fill a fair-sized anthology with good bad poems, if it were not for the significant fact that good bad poetry is usually too well known to be worth reprinting. It is no use pretending that in an age like our own, “good” poetry can have any genuine popularity. It is, and must be, the cult of a very few people, the least tolerated of the arts. Perhaps that statement needs a certain amount of qualification. True poetry can sometimes be acceptable to the mass of the people when it disguises itself as something else. One can see an example of this in the folk-poetry that England still possesses, certain nursery rhymes and mnemonic rhymes, for instance, and the songs that soldiers make up, including the words that go to some of the bugle-calls. But in general ours is a civilisation in which the very word “poetry” evokes a hostile snigger or, at best, the sort of frozen disgust that most people hear when they hear the word “God”. If you are good at playing the concertina you could probably go into the nearest public bar and get yourself an appreciative audience within five minutes. But what would be the attitude of the same audience if you suggested reading them Shakespeare’s sonnets, for instance? Good bad poetry, however, can get across to the most unpromising audiences if the right atmosphere has been worked up beforehand. Some months back Churchill produced a great effect by quoting Clough’s “Endeavour” in one of his broadcast speeches. I listened to the speech among people who could certainly not be accused of caring for poetry, and I am convinced that the lapse into verse impressed them and did not embarrass them. But not even Churchill could have got away with it if he had quoted anything much better than this.

–George Orwell, from “Rudyard Kipling,” an essay originally published in 1942. Republished in 2008 in All Art Is Propaganda. (Thanks to Jeannine for digging it out.)


Around the Web

Follow-up to “The Gender Question” is coming tomorrow, but in the meantime, here are a few links of interest.


Most importantly, Rattle now has an active Facebook page.  We’re going to be posting regular updates there, event notices, news, things like that.  Please, please, please add it and tell your poetic-minded friends to add it.  VPR has over a thousand friends. I want over a thousand friends!


The first serious review of American Fractal is up online at American Book Review, one of four reviews in this month’s LineOnLine supplement (click here to download the PDF). The review is mixed, with some high praise and some consternation. I’m not 100% sure what he means when he says that “form is a corset.” When he complains, his only complaint is that some of the poems have too much closure — he prefers those that are more open-ended. The whole point of the book was to have both, so I don’t mind that criticism at all. Actually, when it comes to criticism, I might care less than any poet in the world, for about sixty different reason — maybe I’ll make a post about those reasons sometime. It’s an honor to be considered that thoroughly and thoughtfully. (And the reaction is mostly good, besides.)


If you couldn’t make the Cowboy Poetry Reading, you’re in luck, because Poetry.la has already posted the video from it. Just click the images of any of the seven poets on the front page, and it will take you to YouTube.  The reading was a lot of fun — I meant to make a post about it. Maybe I still will.  While you’re at Poetry.la, though, browse around the rest of the site.  It’s a wonderful service they do for the local poetry community, one I’ve taken advantage of myself.  They’ve recorded over a hundred local and visiting poets; you could spend days watching.

"Yes, We Can" by Marvin Bell

Marvin Bell


On the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States of America, Jan. 20, 2009.

We are a people who began from a Yes,
A nation born of the yes in the farmland,
The yes engraved in the dirt and stone,
In the mines, in the sea, in the machines
That made girders that made cities,
In the big ideas that make us human,
In the yes that comes to every street
Where there endures a love of forebears
And a net for children when they fall,
Where there was a yes to “Let’s try,”
And a yes, we can do better, and a yes
That grew to enfold our largest America.
Yes to the high-rise ironworker, yes
To the diggers of tunnels and the pilots,
Yes to those still on line, to the makers,
The builders, the haulers, the guardians,
To the teachers who had to make do.
It is the yes that sings, and lights up the dark.
It is the yes in the myriad colors of unity,
And in what it means to be a grownup.
In the gasoline rainbows by the curb
As the parent takes his child to school
And the parent takes her lunch bucket to work,
And the father carries his papers
And the schoolchild her homework,
The carpenter her measure, the fisherman his tackle,
And who dares say, no we can’t, at sunup?
Have you heard the cry of yes in the newborn
At his mother’s breast, and heard the yes
Whispering in the fields at harvest time?
There is a yes that will not be shushed
In the head of the scientist weary at her desk
And in the doctor as he studies the x-rays
After hours. We are the yes from every continent,
The yes born of flesh and blood that came
By steerage and slave ship, the manyness
Of all who were this nation’s first people
Or came after, by many paths, whatever it took.
We have been an aggregate of wishes
And hopes, of the future, of blessings, of aches
And pleasure, of the sacred liberties
For which families have labored and grieved.
We still want to say yes, yes to equality,
Yes to the best in us, yes and yes to the idea
That we will be judged by what we do for others
For free, and so we have said yes, and yes again,
One nation, one people, and yes, we can.

Marvin Bell, who served two terms as the State of Iowa’s first Poet Laureate, wrote this poem at the request of an Obama supporter.

The Dean of Typewriters

Every writer likes to have a special space in which to write.  I like to write in the basement, in the dark, on a laptop, halfway reclined in my papasan chair.  Some people write in the woods.  Some like a noisy cafe, full of characters worth stealing.  Some like a special kind of paper or pen.

This Christmas I tried to give Megan a special space, in the form of an antique typewriter–a 1942 Portable Royal de Luxe, to be exact. Meg’s an old soul, with a taste for the simpler, finer things (she likes to write by hand in a leather-bound journal, for example), so it seems like a good fit.  I did a lot of research, trying to figure out which machines the great poets of the past century have written on.  There are lots of famous stories.  The Catholic priest who refused to give Anne Sexton her last rites instead told her, “God is in your typewriter.”  But what brand was it?  I still don’t know, but whatever it was, it must have been durable.

I quick Google search turns up myTypewriter.com, which lists the machines that dozens of great works were written on.  Royal seems to top the unofficial tally in my head, and as far as typewriters go, that company has certainly been the most innovate, developing feature after feature that other brands soon copy.  John Ashbery still writes on a Royal Aristocrat.  Joan Didion on a Royal KMM.  Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up at his Royal, which he kept on a bookshelf.

So I was leaning toward a Royal, and then I found the perfect one on eBay.  This 1942 Royal de Luxe was made just months before the war shut down its production plant.  On most machines, many of the small components of the carriage are chrome-plated, but on this one it’s straight-steel–a symbol of the era’s shifting necessities.  I know this because the seller, Dean, is one of the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever done business with.  He refurbishes these machines seemingly just for the love of it, and his product descriptions are the most detailed I’ve seen. It’s clear that the typewriters are his babies, and in communicating him, I almost got the feeling I was being interviewed to become an adoptive parent.  The typewriter arrived in perfect condition, tripled-packed, with the original instructions, and a letter typed by Dean on the machine itself. It looked new, but for the faint smell of oil and the unmistakable must of age.

I still don’t know if the present was a success–writing on a typewriter is vastly different than writing on a computer keyboard.  There’s a nice romanticism to it, and you have to love the sound of the keys pounding against paper, but you do lose a certain amound of functionality.  Either way, though, I just had to give a recommendation to Dean–it sounds like I’m in love with the typewriter, and that’s his enthusiasm rubbing off.  If any of you are looking for this kind of old fashioned writing experience, buy your vintage machine from him, and you won’t be disappointed.

Now I’m curious how others write, and I don’t think it’s a question I’ve asked on here before.  What your preference?  Pen and paper?  Typewriter echoing in the woods?  Laptop at Starbucks?  Drop me a note and let me know.

November Notes

Apparently American Fractal is available on Amazon.com!  I had no idea.  Click this link to preorder at 32% off the cover price.  I always see authors saying you should buy the book from one particular vendor instead of another, but I don’t know if there’s a best way to buy this book — just buy it somewhere.


Also, I’ve heard word that there’s some sort of mailer flying around the USPS delivery chain, so if you asked to get the flyer, or if I took the liberty, check your mail box.


In far more frustrating news, I’m having trouble with the Rattle website again. The blog’s database is connecting very slowly, and often timing out.  The tech guy says I have inefficent scripts, but I don’t even know what that means, let alone how to fix it.  I’m trying a few things.  Everything on there is so basic, and there’s so much extra space on that host account that I can’t believe that’s what the problem really is.  I’m hoping it’s some glitch that they’re going to fix but don’t want to admit to.  In the meantime, I go a little more bald, and pray it’s not hackers again.


Speaking of servers and the like, I moved this blog to a new server last week, and I remembered to save everything except for my “Blogroll” links.  So if you’re reading this, and you have a blog, I’d like to link to you.  Comment below and I’ll add you.  When I have a moment free I’m going to add back everyone I can think of.


For anyone who really wants to be a stalker, all of our wedding photos are now on this page.  The slideshow takes awhile to load, as there are almost 200 pictures in the gallery, and I can’t see how it’s worth it to anyone but friends and family, but there you go.


If I ever get Rattle‘s blog server functioning again, there’s going to be some great daily content added over the next couple months.  Many of the poets from last summer’s issue have already sent me audio of them reading their work to include, and most of the 30 or so visual poems are going to go online, too.  I also plan on adding clips of the actual audio from Alan’s interviews, starting with Marvin Bell’s.  So if you have any ideas about what’s going on with the server, help!