Homage to American Poet, Max Ritvo, who died last year at the rather tender age of 26 years

American Poet Max Ritvo (1999-2016)

“My genes are in mice, and not in the banal way ….”

Max Ritvo (December 19, 1990 – August 23, 2016) was an American poet. Milkweed Editions posthumously published a full-length collection of his poems, Four Reincarnations, to positive critical reviews.

Max Ritvo was born in Los Angeles, California on December 19, 1990  A graduate of Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, Ritvo earned his BA in English from Yale University, where he edited a literary magazine and performed with a sketch comedy troupe, and his MFA in Poetry from Columbia University. In 2014, he was awarded a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship for his chapbook AEONS. On August 1, 2015, he married Victoria Jackson-Hanen, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Princeton University, in a ceremony officiated by the poet Louise Glück. He was a poetry editor at Parnassus: Poetry in Review and a teaching fellow at Columbia.

Ritvo was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma (a rare pediatric cancer) at age sixteen and died from the disease at his home in Los Angeles on August 23, 2016.

Ritvo’s work has appeared in Poetry, The New Yorker, Boston Review and as a Poem-a-day on Poets.org. He gave numerous written and radio interviews before his death.

Four Reincarnations, a full-length collection of Ritvo’s poems, was published by Milkweed Editions in September 2016.

According to Lucie Brock-Broido of Boston Review, Ritvo is

“a Realist, a gifted comic, an astronomer, a child genius, a Surrealist, a brainiac, and a purveyor of pure (and impure) joy. His work is composed, quite simply, of candor, of splendor, and of abandon.”

Louise Glück wrote of his first published collection that it was “one of the most original and ambitious first books in my experience… marked by intellectual bravado and verbal extravagance.”

Stephen Burt of the Los Angeles Review of Books wrote,

“…the poems are equally conscious of impending death and of the next day’s life, having spent time in a pool of self-skepticism and then emerged shining, shockingly clean…”

While noting that Ritvo “seems to have written most of this book with the clarity, the near equanimity, the distance from ordinary reversals and struggles, of much older poets who know that they are dying,” Burt also writes, “But mortality is rarely his only subject: shyness, gratitude, and erotic attachment are as important as death itself.”

Literary critic Helen Vendler reviewed his work and likened him to Keats. She wrote:

“Ritvo had the luck to study at Yale with Louise Glück and at Columbia with Lucie Brock-Broido, and to attract, before his death, many admirers of his ecstatic originality. Although he is inimitable, his example is there for young poets wanting to forsake simple transcriptive dailiness for the wilder country of the afflicted but dancing body and the devastated but joking mind.”

David Orr, reviewing Four Reincarnations for the New York Times, wrote “It is good-humored (“My genes are in mice, and not in the banal way / that Man’s old genes are in the Beasts”), appealingly sly (“Enoch has written / We are made in His image / but God may have many images./ He may want even more”) and at times surprisingly whimsical (“Every day a chicken dies so that my mom may live”). Orr also quoted, then commented on the end of Ritvo’s poem, The Hanging Gardens:

“This is very fine, and if it acquires a sheen of sentiment because of what it suggests will never emerge — that is, more poems from Ritvo — this doesn’t change the fact that a reader knowing nothing of poetry or this author might find it worth rereading. This is the life poetry leads beyond the confines of the poetic career; the life in which lines exist for what they are, not for future lines they might suggest. The life in which an early poem is also a poem, and a first book is also a book.”

In 2017, Milkweed Editions announced the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, an annual US$10,000 award and publication contract, supported by the Alan B. Slifka Foundation.


Note:  I knew Max Ritvo had a fatal cancer but his death somehow didn’t cross my radar until English poet Reuben Woolley posted an obit earlier this week on Facebook. Such an impossibly sad loss. It has been weighing on me and – however belatedly – I wanted to do a write-up as homage but deadlines and other responsibilities are pressing. Hence, this post is from Wikipedia. Forgive me for not doing my own writeup, though that will come one day. It’s on my ever-lengthening to-do list.

The photos are courtesy of (the first) Ashley Woo under CC BY-SA 2.0 license and, under the same license, (the second) Wayne Miller


Here is Max reciting My Litter during his self-proclaimed “final tour.” (If you are reading this from an email subscription, it’s likely you will have to link through to the site to view the video.) Max’s Amazon page is HERE. May he rest in peace and may the healing power of the Universe support his wife and family in their lives and loss.

Poetry as Prayer … a little inspiration from Robert Lax …

Everything that exists
can turn to prayer;
even the water,
even the air.

– Robert Lax
A Song For Our Lady

If you are viewing this post from an email subscription, you’ll likely have to link through to watch the two short videos included today.

“And in the beginning was love. Love made a sphere: all things grew within it; the sphere then encompassed beginnings and endings, beginning and end. Love had a compass whose whirling dance traced out a sphere of love in the void: in the center thereof rose a fountain.”

– Robert Lax
from his renown poem, Circus in the Sun (about the circus of creation), it was read at Lax’s funeral in New York


“I think it’s a metaphysical concept
starting with Aristotle and flowering in St. Thomas
that God is pure act and that there is no potentía in him
…. Almost everything else in the universe is potentía,
it’s on its way to being pure act”

An excellent – award wining – biography – of Lax

Robert Lax (1915 – 2000) was an American poet who converted from Judaism to Catholicism. He has been called “saint,” “mystic, “one of the great enigmas of American poetry, “a pilgrim” and “a prophet.” His poems where innocent, ecstatic and even whimsical. Over time they became more and more minimalist … one simple word or strings of sounds stretched into long narrow word-cascades that sometimes stopped here and there to puddle.

“Robert Lax’s poems [prove] yet again that the gift to be simple is the gift to be free, that less is more, and that least may sometimes be most.”—John Ashbery

Photo credit: Lax’s Amazon author’s page.

In addition to his poetry, Robert Lax is know for his friendship with the writer, poet and Trapist monk, Thomas Merton, also a convert to Catholicism.

Lax went to school with John Berryman and was mentor to Jack Kerouac. He was friends with and appreciated by the Beats and one of my fave writers, James Agee (A Death in the Family and – with photographer Walker Evens – Let Us Now Praise Men). Denise Levertove and e.e. commings numbered among Lax’s friends as well. He was also close to the artist Ad Reinhart.

In 1962 Lax began his travels in Greece, settling into life as a hermit on the island of Patmos, seen by many as a sacred space. Patmos is the alleged site of the vision of and writing of the Christian Bible’s Book of Revelation. Because of that connection, the island is a destination for Christian pilgrimage.

Although Robert Lax lived quietly in Patmos and did nothing to promote his poetry or himself, people – including the Beats and other poets – came to visit him. He always welcomed his visitors and purposeful or accidental students. He was mentor to more than a few.

If poetry as prayer is a topic of interest, you could do worse than to explore Lax’s life and work. A light read and good introduction to this poet is The Way of the Dreamcatcher: Spirit Lessons with Robert Lax.  It was written by San Francisco writer, S.T. Georgiou (Greek Orthodox), who went to Patmos in search of some spiritual answers. As good fortune would have it, he met Robert Lax, became friends with him and visited often with him on several trips back to Patmos.  Subsequently, after Lax’s death, Georgiou wrote The Way of the Dreamcatcher, a book about this adventure in friendship, mentoring, the sacred and poetry.

Robert Lax received the National Council of the Arts Award in 1969.

Books by Robert Lax include:


“because yes – he likes to ‘write’ – but to ‘do’ – to do a particular thing – perhaps on paper (perhaps on canvas – perhaps in stone – perhaps, perhaps in a musical score) – a thing that will stand, a thing that will bear (that will sustain) repeated contemplation: a thing that will sustain long contemplation, and that will (in a ‘deep’ enough way) reward the beholder.”  Robert Lax, Love Had a Compass: Journals and Poetry

CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (18): Joy Harjo, Crazy Brave

Joy Harjo (b 1951), Mvskoke (Creek) Poet, Musician, author and key player in the second wave of the Native Merican Renaissance (literary efflorescence)
Joy Harjo (b 1951), Mvskoke (Creek) Poet, Musician, author and key player in the second wave of the Native American literary efflorescence

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 Crazy Brave (Norton & Company, 2012), Joy Harjo’s eminently engaging memoir, flows like a long prose poem. It is rich and well-built on a foundation of tribal mythologies, a strong sense of her ancestry, her difficult childhood and youth and salvation found in poetry and music. From her birth to a handsome much-loved fire-spirit father who inherited Indian oil money, allowing him to indulge a passion for cars, and her beautiful water-spirit singer-mother whose voice was stilled by a bully of a second-husband, Harjo tells the story of girl who survived a physically and emotionally abusive step-father, crushing poverty and the greater cultural obscenities to become one of our most influential poets and a formidable advocate for justice for Native Americans and liberation for women.

I was entrusted with carrying voices, songs, and stories to grow and release into the world, to be of assistance and inspiration. These were my responsibility.”

*****

I can’t imagine the human being who wouldn’t relate to Joy Harjo’s history, but those who have come from “broken” homes, poverty and a family of mixed ethnicity will most especially appreciate it and perhaps find some healing and strength in the pages of Crazy Brave. That Joy Harjo survived so much to become a decent loving person leaves the rest of us with no excuse; and any writer, poet or musician will take to heart the dreams and visions of that long journey to find hope and creative voice in poetry.

Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoke tribe was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, an area where the Native American trail of tears ended, an area to which the indigenous peoples were removed – forced to relocate –  as people of European descent moved into their original home places. The removed were the Five Civilized Tribes – Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Mvkoke and Seminole  – who were living as autonomous nations in what is now the American Deep South.

“I fought through the War Between the States and have seen many men shot, but the Cherokee Removal was the cruelest work I ever knew”. Georgian soldier who participated in the removal

*****

When the World as We Knew It Ended
It was coming.
We had been watching since the eve of the missionaries in their long
and solemn clothes, to see what would happen.
We saw it
from the kitchen window over the sink
as we made coffee, cooked rice and potatoes
enough for an army.
We saw it all, as we changed diapers and fed
the babies. We saw it,
through the branches of the knowledgeable tree,
through the snags of stars, through
the sun and storms, from our knees
as we bathed and washed the floors …
The conference of the birds warned us as they flew over
destroyers in the harbor, parked there since the first takeover.
It was by their songs and talk we knew when to rise,
when to look out the window

excerpt from When the World Ended in How We Became Human, New and Selected Poems (W.W. Norton & Co., 2004)

*****

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Joy Harjo’s poetry and music are influenced by her ethnic heritage and her feminist and social concerns as well as by her love of word and sound and her education in the arts. Largely autobiographical, her poetry is informed with descriptions of the Southwestern landscape and the mythologies, symbols and values of the Mvskoke people. Hers is the sort of writing that sits with you to become part of your own bone and marrow, which is the way of good poetry and good story. A poet of the people but also a critically-acclaimed poet, her many awards include the Wallace Stevens Award of the Academy of American Poets, The William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America and the American Indian Distinguished Achiement in the Arts Award. She is the recipient of several grants and is a teacher, musician (saxophone) and singer.  She has published some fourteen books and ten music albums.

It was a dance,
her back against the wall
at Carmen’s party. He was alone
and he called to her – come here, come here
that was the firs time she saw him
and later she and Carmen drove him home
and all the way he talked to the moon,
to the stars, to someone riding

excerpt from There Was a Dance, Sweetheart in How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems (1975-2022) (W.W. Norton & Co., 2004) © Joy Harjo

If you are reading this post from email, you will likely have to link though to this blog to enjoy the video. Joy Harjo’s Eagle Song, poem and music:

© review, Jamie Dedes; poems, Joy Harjo, photographs courtesy of Ms Harjo

CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (11): Adrienne Rich, wrestling for the soul of our country

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)
Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)
Audre Lorde, Meridel Le Sueur, Adrienne Rich
Audre Lorde, Meridel Le Sueur, Adrienne Rich

Madeline Ostrander wrote this article for YES! Magazine, “a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.” Madeline was YES! Magazine‘s senior editor at the time of this writing. She is now an independent journalist and contributing editor to Yes! Magazine.

“I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn between bitterness and hope…”

I was 19 when I first read Adrienne Rich and these words from “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” which seemed to tear down the barriers between the poem and me, and let me in.

Like Rich, I grew up at a distance from true poverty: “reader reading under a summer tree in the landscape of the rural working poor,” she writes. But I knew how fractured and unstable the world around me was becoming. I was part of the first generation to grow up knowing about climate change, brought to world attention by James Hansen and to my school classroom by a forward-thinking science teacher. I was in high school when the Soviet Union collapsed; as a child, I had nightmares about nuclear war. Rich’s poetry gave me hope that stories could change things—could force us to confront and heal what is painful and give us hope, strength, and compassion.

Rich belonged to an activist strain of poetry; she believed words needed to be reclaimed by the people who have been left out of the history books.

When Rich died a profound loss at a time when we urgently need more storytelling that reaches across our fragmented, politically divided culture. “Atlas” is still one of the most searing and honest descriptions I’ve read about how broken and divisive the modern world is. It’s a 26-page poem that sweeps across the landscapes and histories of North America and elevates people and scenes that are ordinary, neglected, and counted out—farmworkers made sick from pesticides, a woman beaten by her partner, the wasting of our ecological landscapes, weedy fields of Jerusalem artichoke “that fed the hobos, could feed us all.”

Here is a map of our country …
This is the haunted river flowing from brow to groin
we dare not taste its water
This is the desert where missiles are planted like corms …
This is the cemetery of the poor …
This is the sea-town of myth and story when the fishing fleets
went bankrupt … processing frozen fish sticks hourly wages and no shares

Occupy didn’t exist then, of course, but Rich was crafting poetry for the 99 percent: “a poetry older / than hatred. Poetry / in the workhouse, laying of the rails.”

Rich’s long, image-dense lines could seem of out-of-step with a world obsessed with rapid-fire information, Twitter, and text messages. But Rich knew that the marginalization of poets is always a detriment to civil society. In the early 1980s, she traveled to Nicaragua, where she felt the culture “manifested a belief in art, not as commodity, not as luxury, not as suspect activity, but … one necessity for the rebuilding of a scarred, impoverished, and still-bleeding country.”

Rich belonged to an activist strain of poetry; she believed words needed to be reclaimed by the people who have been disempowered and left out of the history books. Her own life is a testament to the power of story in creating cultural change. Rich started college in the late 1940s, when she says even Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s writing was radical for a university campus and certainly no one spoke of feminist ideas in the classroom.

Early in her career, Rich had to scrape together a new kind of language. She used poetry to utter ideas that were almost unspeakable at the time: her poetry pulled back the veil around women’s sexuality and lesbian love and exposed the power and politics that enable war and violence: “I felt driven—for my own sanity—to bring together in my poems the political world ‘out there’—the world of children dynamited or napalmed, of the urban ghetto and militaristic violence—and the supposedly private, lyrical world of male/female relationships,” she said. She published Snapshots of a Daughter in Law, which she calls her first book to overtly tackle sexual politics, in 1963. Decades later, her poetry is still radical, but it’s also a mainstay in college literature classrooms across the country. Her poetry has been a beacon to feminists and social justice activists for several generations, and is included a digital poetry anthology pieced together by organizers of Occupy Wall Street.

Rich never wanted her poetry to be a medium primarily for academe. And she never believed words alone could solve the abuses and inequalities that she wrote about. But reclaiming, decolonizing, and taking charge of language was for Rich the first step in become personally whole and politically powerful. “Because when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder, we can be to an almost physical degree touched and moved. The imagination’s roads open again, giving the lie to that slammed and bolted door, that razor-wired fence, that brute dictum,” she said in a 2006 speech at the National Book Awards, where she received a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

We owe Rich a debt for unlocking the doors that barred the voices of women from art, academe, and the halls of influence for so long. And though she insisted on marking each poem with a date—so that it would stand in the historical context in which she wrote it—everything about her poetry still speaks with urgency and timeliness. Her work illuminates the dark, messy, often painful territory of sex, race, violence, and poverty in America but holds all of us responsible for taking power, ending suffering, and breaking apart social inequalities. In “Atlas,” she writes, “A patriot is one who wrestles for the / soul of her country / as she wrestles for the soul of her own being.” This is what Rich did her whole life, and her poetry enjoins the rest of us to do the same.

– Madeline Ostrander

© feature is courtesy of Yes! magazine under CC license ; photographs are courtesy of Kay Kendall under CC BY 2.0 and were taken in 1980 at a writing conference in Austin, Texas.