What Writers Read: Ben Gantcher

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Jump Start

by Ben Gantcher

I normally select books by feel, or I let serendipity be my guide, especially if I can follow a citation like a map to some Ultima Thule. But these days I’m trying to write poems on short notice, so I’ve cooked up a reading program meant to jump-start my attention to poetry. It blends examples of precision, the urge to transcribe the natural world, and plain old beauty, astringent, calm and voluptuous.

  • The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry translated by Rexroth, Williams, Snyder, Pound and Hinton (editor, Eliot Weinberger)
  • Four T’ang Poets translated by David Young
  • The Selected Poetry of William Carlos Williams and Imaginations, a selection of his prose
  • Oxford’s Letters of John Keats and Keats’ Collected Poetry
  • The Poetry and Career of Li Po by Arthur Waley
  • The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard

It’s a cabal of ratified revolutionaries. Sometimes they get together to meditate on the shelf beside my bed, but usually my kids have scattered them.

Look at these two versions of the same poem by Tu Fu:

Brimming Water

Under my feet the moon
Glides along the river.
Near midnight, a gusty lantern
Shines in the heart of night.
Along the sandbars flocks
Of white egrets roost,
Each one clenched like a fist.
In the wake of my barge
The fish leap, cut the water,
And dive and splash.

translated by Kenneth Rexroth

Brimmed Whole

A river moon only feet away, storm-lanterns
alight late in the second watch . . . . Serene

flock of fists on sand—egrets asleep when
a fish leaps in the boat’s wake, shivering, cry.

translated by David Hinton

In the Rexroth, the lantern shining in the wind at “the heart of night” could be the moon, an actual lantern hung outside an inn by someone who waits for the speaker, or the moon and a lantern at the same time. And what is this happiness of fish—is it owed to their reprieve from the beaks of the egrets? or to the excitement of the passing barge, the fish like children chasing an ice cream truck? If you like Rexroth’s version (even if you don’t), check out his great poem “The Signature of All Things.”

The Hinton, on the other hand, is fistlike itself, Modernist in its compression and the pressure the syntax puts on the scene. In this version, the fists hear the leaping of the fish, it wakes them and they cry what I hear as a predatory regretful alarm—“Fish, don’t go!” I don’t know what the Chinese original does, but I like the way Hinton has managed the “boat’s wake,” syntactically near to the implicit waking of the egrets so that their being asleep is separated from their crying out only by their shivering, as the unfurling of the image in our mind’s eye is superintended by the word “shivering.” In this way he gets (at least) double semantic duty out of “shivering,” which attaches both to the wake of the boat and to the egrets, those sleeping fists. Another thing I like is the alignment of lanterns with birds, as they “alight late in the second watch.” The sounds are watery, too. Hinton, by the way, recently published Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology, with poems running from the 15th century B.C.E. through the 13th century C.E.

I’m in the middle of The Poetry and Career of Li Po, in which Waley coaxes a biography, which is sometimes stretched thin, out of administrative scraps and poems by Li Po and by his associates, balancing that information against the authorized version of Li Po’s life by his friend and literary executor. So we follow Li Po on his peregrinations through China and on his path to becoming a poet.

It turns out that Li Po was not only the wandering drunk master of nonattachment, who is so easy to look up to as a combination of troubadour and renegade, but also a continually disappointed aspirant to a high-ranking job. The poet whoHinton tells me is called the Banished Immortal might not have been the free spirit I idolize if he had been given any one of the many positions in the palace that he coveted. And the idea that he coveted such a position, that he cared about rank and respect and luxuries, makes his poetic accomplishments seem like something I, similarly hemmed in by worldly concerns, albeit ones I chose, can plausibly aspire to.

I’ve been reading The Poetics of Space unprogrammatically since college. We could link it to the Chinese poets and William Carlos Williams via Keats’ building of portals in the natural world. But we don’t have to—The Poetics of Space is just a pleasure. Bachelard tries to show that images of spaces inhabitable in the imagination have an a priori existence there—he thinks they affect us regardless of our conditioning, regardless of psychology. I love this confounding idea and his dear old mannish insistence on the primacy of imagery and of poetry in general. It must have driven the psychologists at the Sorbonne crazy, and I suspect that at least the English philosophers made fun of his metaphysics. But who cares? Just as wonderful as Bachelard’s discussion are the quotations, most of which are from French poets I haven’t met anywhere else. (By the way, it’s those quoted poems, conveying a secret, essential dimension through whimsical images of seashells, nutshells and the spaces inside a house, that connect our interior spaces to the natural world.)

I also have to tell you about two works of fictionTrain Dreams, a novella by Denis Johnson that presents a small world, that of the just-Industrial Idaho panhandle, through the life of one man who lives alone in the woods. The details of existence at this fringe of civilization, where the train whistle and the howling of wolves mingle in significance, accumulate until, at a late point in the book, a kind of horrifying wind blows through the story. That’s all I’m saying.

And read Desperate Characters by Paula Fox. It’s set in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill in the 70s. The writing is distinct and precise. One piece that stays with me is the molecularly clear description of a variety of feelings the protagonist enjoys and suffers when she falls for the man she has an affair with.

gantcher-100x140Ben Gantcher’s book of poems, Snow Farmer, comes out in March 2017 from CW Books. Strings of Math and Customa chapbook, is free and downloadable.  was recently published by Beard of Bees Press. It’s free and downloadable. His poems have appeared in many journals, including Guernica, Slate, The Saint Ann’s Review, and Tin House. If a Lettuce, his first book, was a finalist in the National Poetry Series and Bright Hill Press contests. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Melissa Kantor, and their three children and teaches math and Language Structures at Saint Ann’s School.

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