Last Week in Poetry #5: 5/3-5/10/2009

It seems impossible, but I assure you it’s not: it’s Monday again. What that means for most people is burnt coffee, chronic self-loathing, and “Someone’s got a case of the Mondays!” underpants. What that means for you, dear reader, is another list of stories that – just last week – turned the world of poetry on its head. (And what that doesn’t mean is a series of awful Shaquille O’Neal puns.)

Without further delay, let’s go back a week!

1 – Craig Arnold: 1967-2009

Craig Arnold, 1967-2009
(© unknown)

As reported here last week, poet Craig Arnold went missing while on a remote volcano in Japan. News sources confirmed Friday that Arnold suffered a leg injury and then fell to his death off a steep cliff.

“The only relief in this news is that we do know exactly what befell Craig, and we can be fairly certain that it was very quick, and that he did not wait or wonder or suffer,” wrote Rebecca Lindenberg, Arnold’s partner of six years, on a Web site she maintained during the search.

Jacqueline Osherow, professor of English at the U. and Arnold’s adviser in the doctoral program, said is devastated by the loss. Osherow said her letter recommending Arnold for the fellowship in Japan weighed on her at first after news of his disappearance, but has since lifted. She described Arnold as a big-hearted person whose immense talent let him do what he wanted in life.

“I’m more broken-hearted for him than the poems he didn’t live to write,” Osherow said. “This is a loss to American literature and letters. It’s wrong to say he was full of promise, because he delivered on that.”

The Poetry Project sends its condolences to Craig’s family and friends.

2 – Lord of the Verse

Tolkien fans rejoice: after being lost for 70 years, J.R.R.’s poetic adaptation of old Norse legend has found the light of day, thanks to the efforts of Tolkien’s son Christopher. The poems are available as The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun and contain, as do all good sagas, “betrayal, love, and slaughter” as well as “dragons, dwarves, golden hoards, and a lot of drinking.”

The poems – the “New Lay of the Volsungs” and the “New Lay of Gudrun” – aren’t direct translations of the original Old Norse “sources,” which were “various in their nature.” This was J. R. R.’s attempt to “organize the Edda material dealing with Sigurd and Gunnar.”

The “Volsungs” deal with the life and death of the Volsung family. It’s mainly about Sigurd who slays the dragon Fafnir, takes his cursed gold, wins the love of the warrior maiden Brynhild but is told to come back when he has a kingdom. Sigurd, overcome by an enchantment, marries the beautiful Gudrun instead, then deceives Brynhild into marrying his friend, Gunnar. As you might guess, the proud Brynhild doesn’t take this well. Sigurd is assassinated and Brynhild kills herself so she can join him on his funeral pyre.

Although there is no word yet whether Viggo Mortensen will be involved in a staged reading of the poems, I’m pretty sure that Dominic Monaghan is looking for work.


Los Angeles, 2008

3 – White House Hosts Poetry Slam… Or Jam… Or Something Like That

In his continued effort to bring distinguished artists to the White House, President Barack Obama has scheduled the White House’s very first poetry slam. While I support Obama’s intention to “open up the White House and remind people [it] is the people’s house,” I’m not sure that Obama’s PR team has sufficiently investigated the meaning of the phrase “poetry slam.”’s Bob Holman and Margery Snyder agree that the name is a bit misleading:

“Poetry slam” is in quotes in our post’s title because the evening’s program doesn’t sound like an actual poetry slam — the invited artists include Mayda Del Valle, who is known as a slam poet, but also novelist Michael Chabon, bassist Esperanza Spalding, pianist ELEW and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda. But poetry slam has deep roots in Chicago, one of Obama’s home towns, and being a poet himself, I imagine Obama has ideas about slam, so it may well be that an actual poetry slam is staged at the White House this week.

An exhaustive list of articles relating to poetry in last year’s presidential campaigns appears here, courtesy again of Bob and Margery. Thanks for your hard work, guys.

4 – Spotted: Lonely Professor Making Passes at Aspiring Young Poets

When jockeying for a professorship starts to resemble a terrible episode of Gossip Girl, things have gotten out of hand, especially when all-time great Derek Walcott is at the eye of the storm. UK’s Times Online reports:

The race to win poetry’s most prestigious academic post has turned dirty after Oxford academics were anonymously sent a lurid dossier accusing Derek Walcott, the frontrunner and Nobel laureate, of being a sex pest.

The package was circulated last week to staff and graduates eligible to vote in next Saturday’s election for the Oxford professorship of poetry, as well as to the offices of Cherwell, a student newspaper.

The dossier recounts a sexual harassment claim against Walcott, 79, when he taught at Harvard in the 1980s.

The poet was reprimanded following the allegation that he tried to pressure a female student into sleeping with him.

Two things jump out here: first, the claim is over twenty-five-years-old; second, the claim was handled by Harvard already. Yes, the UK has a different legal system than the US does, but surely the concept of double jeopardy isn’t lost on the fine minds of Oxford academics. Walcott has faced these accusations already – judge the man on his merits, not the crimes for which he has already been punished. Professor Hermione Lee agrees:

Lee, president of Wolfson College and a leader of the Walcott campaign, was one recipient of the dirty dossier. Criticising the “campaign of vilification”, Lee said: “The fact that this has been anonymously circulated is rather shocking. It is an unpleasant way of carrying on.

“Should great poets who behave badly be locked away from social interaction? We are acting as purveyors of poetry not of chastity.”

Amen, Hermione.

MasonAtECTLos Angeles, 2008

5 – Cowboy Poets!

From the OMGWTFBBQ sauce files: a new youth Cowboy Poetry Workshop has begun in Mesquite. I would write that sentence again in a much larger font, but I don’t want to come off as amateurish. So many questions spring to mind: What is “Cowboy Poetry”? How do I go about starting my own Cowboy Poetry Workshop? Since when is Mesquite more than just a flavor of BBQ sauce? I’d go on, but it’s all covered here:

The youth are learning the rules of cowboy poetry as provided by well-known cowboy poet [and Lariat Laureate!] Sam Jackson from Kanab, Utah, a sheep herder and guest poet at Mesquite’s 3rd Annual Cowboy Poetry Hootenanny, which was held on April 10-11 this year.

There will be some invited guests who will be speaking to the youth about their experiences in the field of cowboy poetry.

The goal of the group is to learn to read, write and recite cowboy poetry to their own ability and with originality.

Their skills will be honed within the next several weeks so that they can present their “works” at a program to which the public will be invited.

If anyone is interested in forming a Chicago-based Cowboy Poetry Workshop with me this summer, please leave a comment.

…and that’s Last Week in Poetry!


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