Rod Jellema

Essays on James Wright,
Donald Hall, and Louis Simpson

The Enriching Dark

James Wright’s last book, This Journey, marks the end of a journey he takes us on into more and more light. But we should notice:  although the book moves steadily toward light, like a vine-root pushing its way out of a bucket of wet leaves, the poems offer almost none of the usual disparagement of the dark encountered along the way. His use of the dark as a positive value, like the painter Rothko’s, or like Van Gogh’s late use of black cypress trunks or ravens, is strange and exceptional in a culture which for centuries has associated darkness with evil, fear, ignorance, treachery, and the unknown. Wright can see something else . . . . [Read the full essay here: The Enriching Dark]

The Peril of Writing Poems

Donald Hall, many years ago, wrote a memorable book of essays in which he argued that the serious work of writing poems extorts too great a price from the domestic life of the poet. The subjects of his study—Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, and Dylan Thomas—certainly in various ways exemplified the danger. In order, we could cite schizophrenia, suicidal depression, loss of confidence, and alcoholism. Reminding us that Plato kicked poets out of the Republic as crazies, Hall reflected upon it: “to make poems is to violate Platonic standards of civilization,” and therefore
For some poets—possibly for all—life’s hell is a wound self-inflicted, as punishment for defying the Platonic censor’s prohibition of poetry.
[Read the full essay here: The Peril of Writing Poems]

Louis Simpson’s “Chicken Soup”:
 Revelations for the Mind

Notice the thrust of my title; Simpson’s great poem about World War II, “A Story About Chicken Soup,” does not hawk yet another swig of that mass-circulation pabulum soup for the soul. The poem uses that Jewish tradition ironically while creating a depth of insight into war that’s beyond the range of expository prose. Forget the endless series of little self-help booklets in which schmaltz has been converted from honest chicken fat to a metaphor for unctuous writing. The last time I counted (January 2017) there were 267 of these purveyors of pop sentimentality and optimism in print. Chicken Soup for the Soul is what we call an industry. [Read the full essay here: Louis Simpson’s “Chicken Soup”: Revelations for the Mind (poem used with the permission of BOA Editions, Ltd.,]

Rod Jellema, long associated with the University of Maryland and with The Writer’s Center (Bethesda, MD), won the Towson University Prize for Literature for A Slender Grace. His most recent book, Incarnality: The Collected Poems (Eerdmans, 2010), includes a CD of his readings of many of them. Rod Jellema was the subject of our Closer Look in Innisfree 12 and serves as Innisfree's Contributing Essayist.



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A CLOSER LOOK: George Moore

Bruce Bennett

Daniel Bourne

Antonia Clark

Don Colburn

Cathy Essinger

Gary Fincke

Linda M. Fischer

Michael Gessner

Barbara Goldberg

Rod Jellema

Laurie Lamon

Bruce McRae

James Mele

Marie Pavlicek-Wehrli

Adam Tamashasky

Kareem Tayyar

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