[This one from earlier this evening, when RW read before a standing-room-only crowd at the "Board of Trustees Room" of Our University's Administration Building. A lovely event.]
I have it from my friend the poet C. S. Giscombe, usually a quite reliable source, that the ideal introduction for a poet should run no more one minute.* For the poet being introduced, waiting nervously to see whether the introducer will mispronounce a name, get a book’s title wrong, or spiral off into the mindless repetition of vague encomia, the one-minute rule might seem quite the godsend. But Rosmarie Waldrop, this year’s Lawrence A. Sanders visiting writer-in-residence, has only herself to blame – herself, and her ceaseless, energetic activity – if her introduction seems less a punchy one-minute warning than the overture to Parsifal. Introduce Rosmarie Waldrop in one minute? Give me an easy one, like summarizing Proust in thirty seconds!
When I introduced Rosmarie Waldrop two days ago, I felt as though I had exhausted my breath in enumerating her honors and accomplishments – that the Republic of France has named her a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, that she is a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, that she is the recipient of awards and grants from the NEA, the Fund for Poetry, the Howard Foundation, and the DAAD Berlin artists’ program; that Burning Deck, the “small” press she runs with her husband Keith, has been one of our primary outlets for innovative poetry & prose over the past three decades; that her many translations – of Emmanuel Hocquard, Anne-Marie Albiach, Jacques Roubaud, Paul Celan, and especially Edmond Jabès – have made her one of the principal mediators of contemporary European poetry for an Anglophone audience; that her prose works, Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès and Dissonance (if you are interested) set her squarely in the ranks of the most interesting contemporary poet-critics.
But the prospect of hearing Waldrop reading her own poetry has for better or worse given me a second wind. The handiest overview of Waldrop’s poetic career, the 1997 Another Language: Selected Poems, includes a blurb which I initially found rather curious: “A thinker and a poet is an extraordinary combination. Waldrop is both.” What, I wondered, is so “extraordinary” about the combination of thinker and poet? haven’t poets, from Lucretius to Dante to Eliot, been among the foremost thinkers of their eras? The etymological roots of “poet,” however, mean not thinker but maker – the poet is someone who makes things: she fashions speech, she crafts words into resonant shapes, she weaves language into tensile baskets that carry burdens of narrative, of emotion, of sensation – only occasionally is she a thinker as well. Waldrop is indeed both thinker and poet. From the early, spare free verse of 1972’s The Aggressive Ways of the Casual Stranger, through the remarkable historical and linguistic meditations of A Key Into the Language of America (1994) to the extraordinary trilogy of prose poem sequences collected in last year’s Curves to the Apple, Waldrop’s poetry has grown into a durable and keen instrument to explore and probe the gendered social body of our language, the social language of our embodied gender. A poet born into one tongue and adopting another in which to write, a translator dedicated to melting down and recasting texts into other languages, Waldrop’s chosen field of play is the “between,” the “Lawn of Excluded Middle” – between languages, between genders, between poetry and fiction, between verse and prose. And while she navigates these various conceptual “betweens,” Waldrop never loses sight of the primordial pleasures of poetry – the resonant shapes of words on the tongue, the surprise of unfamiliar verbal combinations, the energy of torqued syntax and counterpointed etymology. The “lavish dissonance” of her work – if I may be permitted to recast two of her titles – emerges into the resolution of an exquisite polyphony of thought and music. As we are about to hear. Let’s welcome Rosmarie Waldrop.
*This by way of Aldon Lynn Nielsen.