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Poetry in Person

Nearly three decades of informal classroom chats with some of America’s finest poets.

By Carmela Ciuraru / April 7, 2010

Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America’s Poets Edited by Alexander Neubauer Knopf 352 pp., $27.95


In the fall of 1970, Pearl London, a teacher at the New School in New York’s Greenwich Village, introduced a poetry seminar that offered students not only lively discussions of works by famous contemporary poets, but access to the poets themselves. She was ambitious in her guest wish-list, which included Pulitzer Prize-winners and even a Nobel Laureate or two. Most accepted her invitation.

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She made the same request of each poet: Please bring in drafts of poems not yet published. “This is a course concerned essentially with the making of the poem.... with both the vision and the revision,” she wrote to them. “In a sense, the shaping spirit of the imagination is what it is all about.”

John Ashbery, Maxine Kumin, Galway Kinnell, and Paul Muldoon are among the luminaries who visited her classroom over the years. London’s death in 2003 meant that these intimate conversations (occurring over nearly three decades) were forever gone.

With the publication of Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America’s Poets, editor Alexander Neubauer shares a selection of that fascinating material with the public for the first time.

London had made recordings of all her seminars, and when she died, a trove of more than a hundred cassette tapes were found hidden in her home. Thrilled at the discovery, Neubauer transcribed and edited these classroom conversations. They reveal poets bluntly assessing their work, speaking in an unguarded fashion, conceding their vulnerabilities and concerns as they might never have done during formal interviews, which often seem stilted.

“Every time I have something hard to tell or difficult to write I invariably find myself setting up the most elaborate stanzaic patterns to do it,” Maxine Kumin tells students in 1973. “As if that gives me permission to tell the truth and to say the hard things.”

In a 1978 visit to London’s class, Philip Levine admits that his forthcoming book (“7 Years From Somewhere”) is his most autobiographical, borne of a time in midlife when he came close to dying, and when “I ended certain relationships that were punishing and giving me nothing.”

Edward Hirsch speaks beautifully of the act of writing a poem as an unearthing of the unconscious, and as “a descent,” noting that poetry starts with a sense of alienation and “speaks against our vanishing.”


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