On “Treating Shadows as Solid Things”

I’m drawn to works of art that say things other than what they say they say. Milton’s unspoken sympathy for the devil is a particularly delicious example; more poignant is the veiled or transfigured longing in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop or Marianne Moore.

But surely there’s no weirder example of an artist contradicting his stated intentions through the very content of his artwork than the paradoxical presence of Virgil in Dante’s Commedia. This colossal poem narrates the journey of the still-living Dante through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven; the divine powers have selected Dante to make this singular pilgrimage, both so that he can give the world a first-hand account of the afterlife and so that he can save his own soul, which had evidently come perilously close to being lost. Virgil, the spirit of the great Roman poet, is his guide.


On “Soft Power”

When Mark Steinberg, the Brentano Quartet’s first violinist, approached me about composing a piece for his quartet, I felt both enthusiastic and wary: there are few musical mediums more challenging, more revealing (or, in the end, more rewarding) than the string quartet. I hadn’t written anything for string quartet since high school, and I definitely didn’t want those pieces to see the light of day. So I suggested splitting our project in two: a small-scale piece of five or six minutes, followed by a full-length quartet the following year.

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.


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.”

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.