A Catskill Catalog: May 6, 2009

The 48th Poet Laureate of the United States visited the Catskills last week. Charles Simic was the guest of Ulster County Community College where he appeared in the annual Ellen Robbins Poetry Forum, an event held in April to bring “well-known and award winning poets to SUNY Ulster for intimate question and answer sessions, as well as a special evening reading of their poetry.” 
Simic, a Professor Emeritus at the University of New Hampshire, served as the United States Poet Laureate in 2007-08. Originally the position was called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. In 1985, Congress changed the name to match the 370-year-old title of the state poet of Great Britain, member of the Royal Household, official poet of the realm.
“The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress serves as the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans. During his or her term, the Poet Laureate seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry,” the Library of Congress Web site tells us. Kay Ryan of California is the present US Poet Laureate.
Simic is certainly an award-winning poet. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1990, and from 1984 to 1989, got one of those MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants, where the recipient gets something like a half-million dollars over five years to free them up to create. Not bad.
As for well-known, he certainly is – at least in the increasingly shrinking poetry world. When I was growing up, poets like Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg were celebrities, appearing, I recall, on the Sunday night variety-hour “Ed Sullivan Show.” Today, it is hard for most folks to name a famous living poet.
Part of the problem is the high-falutin’ atmosphere that the poetry world seems to seek. It’s almost as if reaching out to write for “the masses” is considered low brow. Most “award-winning poets” are college professors who act as judges on the panels that pick the poets who win awards. It all gets a tad incestuous.
The poet Sparrow – that’s his name - has been a longtime resident of Phoenicia. A student of the late New York School poet Ted Berrigan, Sparrow has forged a pretty successful career taking himself a lot less seriously than most of the poetry world likes to take itself. He has been widely published in periodicals like The Sun, The New York Observer, and Chronogram, and has published several books, including America: A Prophesy, the Sparrow Reader (Soft Skull Press, 2005)
Before he came to the Catskills, Sparrow and his compatriots poets, called The Unbearables, led a protest at The New Yorker, the magazine that, more than any other, sets the tone and taste for contemporary American poetry, one that rarely strays from the rarified standards of the professor-poets.
At the protest, Sparrow and his friends carried this message on their protest signs: “Publish our poems! They’re just as bad as the ones you do publish!” Eventually, The New Yorker did publish one of Sparrow’s poems.
Charles Simic seemed a bit bloodless for my taste. In the morning question and answer session, he called a poem “a very deliberate and clever contrivance,” suggesting, to me, that a poem is a kind of carefully cut jewel, a word-design, a puzzle, rather than an expressive composition, a sometimes messy work of art. Academics seem to prefer these craftsman-poets, members of a guild open only to the few.
Edward Sanders of Woodstock is an accomplished poet of Simic’s generation, yet one who represents an entirely different view of poetry. He and his wife, Miriam, a painter, have been Catskill Mountain residents for many years. Sanders is the author of large, expansive poems, imaginative projections, often book-length, that encompass history and biography, the polar opposite of the deliberate and clever contrivances of the academics.
And the award winning Sanders is well-known, originally as a musician and lyricist in the 1960s folk-rock-poetry-satire band, The Fugs. The Woodstock resident has won a Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry, A National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry, and a National Book Award. He has written biographies-in-verse of the Russian writer, Anton Chekhov, and the American poet Allen Ginsberg. His America, A History in Verse (Black Sparrow Press, 2000) is a 2,000-page tour de force! It is also available on CD (americahistoryinverse.com)
The late Allen Ginsberg had a few Catskill Mountain connections, himself. He was, I understand, a regular visitor to the Zen Monastery in Mount Tremper. For a number of years, Ginsberg owned a farm just north of the Catskills in Cherry Valley. I hear folks would sometimes bump into him on the Pine Hill Trailways bus.
A poet on the bus. There’s something in that concept I like.