A Long High Whistle
Selected Columns on Poetry
According to the author, poetry anthologies are “like a museum exhibition.” They certainly suit every imaginable reading need: fulfilling the core curriculum; completing the home, school, or public library; satisfying the rare book collector; providing access to a favorite writer in one place. Now there is an exceptional anthology about poetry that is both quotable and useful. Readers of The Oregonian are already familiar with poet David Biespiel’s monthly column that ran between 2003 and 2013. Now selections from the series (ended by the author, not the newspaper) are available in A Long High Whistle; Selected Columns on Poetry. According to the author, poetry anthologies are “like a museum exhibition.” They certainly suit every imaginable reading need: fulfilling the core curriculum; completing the home, school, or public library; satisfying the rare book collector; providing access to a favorite writer in one place. Now there is an exceptional anthology about poetry that is both quotable and useful. Readers of The Oregonian are already familiar with poet David Biespiel’s monthly column that ran between 2003 and 2013. Now selections from the series (ended by the author, not the newspaper) are available in A Long High Whistle; Selected Columns on Poetry.
Biespiel revised the columns for the book’s publication. Rather than running on, the pieces maintain their brevity and sharply honed mastery of subject. He writes passionately but always backs it up. None more so than in “Walking Out on the Walkout,” an account of several of his students walking out of a lecture on Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl.” Biespiel admits the 1957 poem is “frank,” but systematically points out that what his students found offensive are the reasons why “Howl” is essential in understanding late 20th century America. He is “shocked” that “the poem’s dirty language sent them to their dorm rooms to enjoy their cleanliness,” because their “cowering” makes them “Ginsbergians through and through.” Thus, the poem’s message about questioning the norm remains relevant.
The book is divided into five sections: What Does It Mean?; From the Past to Here; Theories of Thumb; A Gathering of Poets; and Affirmation. Throughout them are Biespiel’s wonderful descriptions of a poem’s form and function. Among the many are:
· “Lyric poetry is a literary presentation that isolates human experience and connects the solitary voice of the poet to anyone willing to listen.”
· “. . . like a poem, love can also survive and sing. Love poetry strives for just this sort of ideal.”
· “Poetry, like any art, is high-risk. Failure is imminent.”
· “Rhyming provides a means to think. It utilizes the raw sounds of language as an expression of the sophisticated aspects of one’s mind.”
Biespiel has his favorites and is not shy explaining why. He credits T. S. Eliot for making poetry feel “like a sea of possibility,” and Seamus Heaney with providing “the linguistic and rhythmic air of human knowledge.” “Individuality and Equality” is an enthusiastic appreciation of Walt Whitman. While emphasizing that Leaves of Grass is “one of the most important books of poetry in human history,” it’s made known that it was also a lifelong work-in-progress. Immediately following is “Closed for the Season,” regarding another of the author’s favorites, Emily Dickinson. The choice is appropriate since the two polar opposites are frequently discussed, paired, and compared together. Using his repeated failed attempts to visit Dickinson’s home as a metaphor, Biespiel urges readers to seek her out because there is “a lot to behold from examining the outer-scapes as a means to live fully in the inner-scapes.”
Towards the end of A Long High Whistle, all of Biespiel’s ideas crystalize. “The Crime of Writing a Poem” is about Osip Mandelstam, a victim of Stalin’s Great Purge, whose crime was writing an unpublished poem about “Uncle Joe.” In less than three pages and far more convincingly than experts on Russian policy and culture, Biespiel includes a translation of the poem about Stalin, essential information about Mandelstam, and the definition of a poet’s role in society:
What is at stake when one writes a poem? One thing is a quest to record the existence of one’s living life and also one’s life of the imagination. [ . . . ] Poetry matters because it’s the art of the very medium – language—of our daily discourse. [ . . . ] A poet understands that the imagination is the touchstone for thinking and speaking and writing without fear of reprisal or vengeance.
Any job, including that of poet, requires skill, practice, and willingness to learn new things. There are no shortcuts to understanding / appreciating / liking / writing poetry—inane blog posts complete with video, “Top 10” lists, and recitation won’t do it. David Biespiel proves it takes “more than one quick reading” to get “it.” His suggestions on how to accomplish this are valuable and rewarding.