On Walt Whitman’s “The Sleepers”

What follows is excerpted from a lecture I gave at Paine Hall, Harvard University on March 12, 2015. In the process of composing my opera Crossing, I examined what might have led the poet Walt Whitman to make the extraordinary decision to spend years of his life volunteering in Civil War hospitals. I found premonitions of this decision in his poem “The Sleepers.”

On John Donne’s “Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward”

At least once a year, I feel the need to immerse myself in John Donne’s poem “Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward.” I’ve turned to it in times of pain and uncertainty; also in moments of joy. It might be my favorite poem in English. Somehow it has felt more urgent recently. I wanted to share a meditation on it.


Language as “Life Raft”: The Poetry of James Merrill

In James Merrill’s poetry, words talk back. Eerily apt puns render individual words indelibly double; phrases gleam with multiple meanings like many-faceted gems. Merrill is formally graceful not just on the scale of entire poems but also microscopically: he treats individual letters and words as intricate miniature forms – as language’s atoms and molecules, respectively – and he finds a startling depth of meaning in their very shape. Even in his earliest work, he examines what human constructions’ powers of containment are, and what happens when they break: “The Broken Bowl,” from First Poems, imagines the “spectrums” which, “released, will speak/Of colder flowerings where cold crystal broke” (CP 4). In his later poems, Merrill less evasively and more subtly addresses the nature of his medium, written language, to test the limits of what it can hold and what happens when, as proves inevitable since it is a physical substance, it breaks down. Over the course of Merrill’s poetic career, what begins as a virtuoso poet’s game — what can language do? — deepens, as the poet grows increasingly aware of his own mortality, into a matter of utmost significance: what is language’s power of preservation? Is there meaning in language’s tendency, when properly listened-to, to make sense of its own accord — and, to extend that, is there sense in the way language is physically constructed, in the very shapes of letters and words? Are the visible forms of language themselves the cry of their occasion, a literal embodiment of their meanings? With ever-increasing urgency throughout the second half of his career, Merrill tests the edifice of language by tearing it apart: every so often, he razes a structure he’d just (so skillfully) erected, simply to see what remains, or what rises from the ashes. The desired end of Merrill’s experiments in disintegration is for language to respond to the pressure he puts on it, to seem to make its own sense in spite of the poet’s efforts, and thus to intimate the presence of a life, in his poems, beyond that of the poet’s conscious effort.

On the Music of Giuseppe Verdi

Originally published in The Yale Review, 2013

The English composer Thomas Adès, in his book Full of Noises, confesses – after incisive appraisals of composers ranging from Mahler to Janáček to Britten – that Verdi ‘‘is very difficult for me.’’ At first, he seems merely dismissive: he mentions Verdi while discussing composers whose music just doesn’t work 99 percent of the time. But the 1 percent of Verdi’s music that does work evidently bothers him:

“For some reason this music [in this case Simon Boccanegra] won’t lie down and die . . . it still somehow has a kind of wriggling existence. . . . Everything about it is wrong. It could hardly be worse. Yet it has this strangely powerful effect if it’s done well. . . . I look at it in fascination, and I think: why is it that, despite everything, [Verdi] can make a single moment that is so incredibly strong? Because those moments are stronger than they would be if someone had planned it properly. These things suddenly leap out, like a knife out of the canvas.”


On D.A. Powell’s “Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys”

Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys, by D.A. Powell
Graywolf Press, 2012
Reviewed by Matthew Aucoin for The Colorado Review

D.A Powell is at the top of his game. And Powell does love games: we might start with his new collection’s title, Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys, which captures something of the tonal range he can manage with his tongue in his cheek (not that it ever stays there long). The oblique melodrama of Useless Landscape is linked to the winking A Guide for Boys by the antiquated, theatrical “or,” as in Twelfth Night, or What You Will. That’s three tones in seven words, which is about par for this book’s course: it’s a warning and a come-on, a lament and a love song. He exposes the “useless landscape” of our damaged, infertile world (and of the human body ravaged by lust) — but he also writes us a “guide” to navigating and loving that world (and the body). And the back jacket cover — a map of a pale, lake-pocked landscape which looks like one of Powell’s descriptions of the body (“Winded, white-haired body. Splotchy skin. / A face uneven as a river jag / and asperous as the mullein’s flannel leaves”) — is bordered on its four sides by the book’s title, re-lineated as a quiet plea: use less land scape