I Wonder as I Wander; or Writing Poetry of Deep Consideration

I am reading Matthew Zapruder’s excellent Why Poetry, and particularly, his very useful meditation on learning to read Ashbery (a skill I have not yet acquired…). In this meditation he speaks about imagination and its power. He quotes Wallace Stevens’s 1941 lecture “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words”: “What is [the poet’s] function? Certainly it is not to lead people out of the confusion in which they find themselves, Nor is it…to comfort them. I think that his function is to make his imagination theirs…[be] the light in the minds of others…to help people to live their lives.” As Zapruder puts it, “..[N]ot an escape from the world around us, but a different sort of engagement.”

This made me think of my recent lurking discomfort. Although completely understandable in the face of the grimness of life in the world right now, the current poetry I’m writing and what I’m reading/hearing/seeing seems to suffer from an excess of earnestness. I am also hearing a voice in today’s poems that cries over and over “I am Other,” “I am Other.” The personal seems to be only or primarily political, rather than essentially human, as complex, contradictory, and infuriating that state is. I read (and write ) and I listen but find myself in the end hungry. What do I want for sustenance if not this? Is it humor? Whimsy? Distraction?

A different sort of engagement. Yes.

There is cleverness in abundance in the poems I’m encountering, certainly, and wordcraft and wordplay. But am I seeking the imaginative? Something that takes me away from the headlines? I’m not necessarily seeking to be comforted — there is nothing comfortable about the rough beast slouching toward Bethelehem or the boy falling from the sky as the executioner’s horse scratches its behind on a tree. And those are poems that do feed me. Headlines change. But what does not change, it seems, are the essential dilemmas of being a human being in the world, bumping up against each other and the earth and the cosmos. I think about Dickinson’s slanted telling. I want more of that.

Marcel Proust, in commenting on the early 20th century poetry of Anna de Noailles, talked about work that came from “the profound self that individualizes works and makes them last.” I’m not sure that these works written so quickly in response to the day’s atrocities are given even half enough time and consideration to reflect that “profound self,” the individual experience so deeply considered that it becomes universal.

Zapruder again: “When Stevens writes that the role of the poet is to help people live their lives, it sounds very grandiose. But really what he means is that the role of the poet as he perceives it is to deepen experience, to write poems that we can use to protect ourselves in some small way against the constant encroachment of ‘the pressure of the real,’ …The original Surrealists of the 1930s in France had a similar, utopian, impossible desire for poetry, that it would reconnect our daily existence with the world of imagination and dreams that modern life has split from us, leaving us in constant deadening pain.”

I don’t know that I entirely agree, but I think he’s getting at something I’m missing right now in my work and so much of what I’m seeing just now. Big big vision. Deep consideration. Grand imagining. And, yes, maybe a little whimsy.




Phoenix; or How Poetry Helps

I’ve been indulging one of my greatest pleasures again: rereading. Harry Potter. What a fine, satisfying read these are. I started at the end, having forgotten how things all ended up. Then backed up to books 5 and 6. There’s nothing better than reading about the battle of good and evil — so much better than living it, as in real life, it’s far more nuanced, subtle, confusing, layered, annoying. In Book 6, Someone Very Important dies (in case you’re the one person left in the world who has not read it because of some ridiculous “I don’t read fantasy” bullshit or something). Then this small thing happens: “Somewhere out in the darkness, a phoenix was singing in a way that Harry had never heard before: a stricken lament of terrible beauty. And Harry felt…that the music was inside him, not without: It was his own grief turned magically to song…How long they all stood there, listening, he did not know, nor why it seemed to ease their pain a little to listen to the sound of their mourning…” Music does something to us. Carries us, takes us, holds us. But I also thought about the calls over the internet I see not infrequently: people asking for recommendations for poems to offer someone in need — can anyone think of a poem for a friend who lost a child, for someone who is dying, someone who needs a way to feel better about the wounded world. Poetry too eases our pain as we listen to the sound of it in someone else’s words. In the initial stranglehold of deep emotion, we are wordless. Our sounds are more like music, albeit unmusical. But quickly we tend to reach for words. Often “why” or “no” or “but…” or, in my case usually, a good old monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon curse word. But it’s not long before people often seek words of ritual or of talisman or succor, and this is often found in poetry. And I guess this is a fine ambition I can have for my own work, that someone, sometime, somewhere finds in my words their own emotion, and that it somehow helps or delights or makes them for a moment feel connected. Kind of sappy? I know, but hey, I just stopped crying over the ending of Book 6. Give me a break.


No. No, you’re not a poet but you didn’t know it; or, what the hell is poetry anyway

I know they’re just trying to connect, to reach out to the strange beast they perceive me as being: poet, or, at least, writer of that strange flora, poetry. But when the next person happens to rhyme as they speak a sentence and then say to me, gleefully, “oh, I must be a poet too!” I’m going to whack ’em.

No, no. All right. I won’t. But what I do need to do is start acknowledging when people make observations in everyday conversation that ARE poetic: when they draw an analogy, use a metaphor or simile, when they make that leaping connection that, I believe, makes poetry its best self.

Did you just say “My neighbor is an old fart”? Poetic! Faintly smelly, not overly offensive, but lingering unpleasantly in your side yard, or even after he departs something remains, something unpleasant just beyond memory or scent or sound? — yes. A lovely analogy.

To see a faraway star clearly, look just to one side of it. This is how poetry works.

Metaphor in poetry is expressing the thing that can’t be expressed by likening it to some other thing, and, in so likening, contains something almost perfect in the gap between the thing and the expression, some spirit that you’ve conjured filling that space and shifting our vision for a moment. If the old fart’s name is Art, well, that’s just a funny thing.



Ecstatic instances: Why write. Why read.

Reading poems by Larry Levis and Ocean Vuong these past few weeks. Different backgrounds, different cultures, one young, one dead quite young. But I find their work does similar things for me. They both write in a narrative vein — that is, they give you a hint of plot, setting, characters, often family members, real or imagined; they put you, the reader, in the room. Then by the end of the poem, you realize they’ve blown open the fourth wall, and you’re standing in the world somehow. The world of time, of the heart, of the human soul, it all comes gusting in that room and you, reader, are changed. Charged. That’s what they do for me, anyway.

I read, particulary poetry, to have my vision of the world shifted. I write for that reason too — I both want to discover HOW to shift my vision, and want to share what I see.

I went to an event recently in which people were asked what they were passionate about with regard to their creativity. Several people I spoke with were so generous with their intentions — they wanted their creative work to help people, specific populations, young women, for example, or the mentally ill. My first thought was entirely solipsistic. What I’m passionate about in regard to my creativity is that I’m pushing that creativity, pulling it, prodding it, folding it up and sailing it across the room. Am I writing my best? Am I imagining in the broadest way I can?

Talking to these generous others, I was brought up short. What use am I in the world? Well, I have to go back to this purpose of reading and seeing.

Here’s a quote from Hermann Hesse that I found on the wonderful gift that is the Brainpickings site. It’s from a book of his called My Belief: Essays on Life and Art:

“The great and mysterious thing about this reading experience is this: the more discriminatingly, the more sensitively, and the more associatively we learn to read, the more clearly we see every thought and every poem in its uniqueness, its individuality, in its precise limitations and see that all beauty, all charm depend on this individuality and uniqueness — at the same time we come to realize ever more clearly how all these hundred thousand voices of nations strive toward the same goals, call upon the same gods by different names, dream the same wishes, suffer the same sorrows. Out of the thousandfold fabric of countless languages and books of several thousand years, in ecstatic instants there stares at the reader a marvelously noble and transcendent chimera: the countenance of humanity, charmed into unity from a thousand contradictory features.”


Penny for Your Thoughts; on Art and Commerce

On a lovely autumn day I shlepped about an hour and a half away to read my poems to a nicely packed small room full of 20 or 25 people. And I had carefully chosen which poems to read in what order and what to say about individual poems. And the audience seemed to be responsive and to really connect with some of the poems, and clapped long and hard after I was done, and a couple of people came up to me afterwards to say the enjoyed it. And no one bought a book.

And I felt so dispirited. No one connected with the poems enough to want to hand over $15 to bring them home. Fifteen bucks, people! Come on! I thought crankily to myself.

Then I thought, how awful that I am conflating appreciation with commerce.

After all, I’ve left many a poetry reading without buying a book, even if I really enjoyed the reading. So what is that makes me buy a book? It’s not enjoyment alone. I have to overcome my natural cheapness, which is quite a high barrier. And I have to slosh through the mud puddle of knowledge that we already don’t have shelf space for the books we own. Just to get through those hurdles is work.

But I realize I overcome those things when I think the poet or the poetry has something to teach me as a writer. If I adopt a book to bring home to my already crowded space, it’s usually because I want to spend time with it as a student of the art. To find out exactly how this person pulled off their particular magic. To soak in some of that technique or those ideas and figure out how I can use them in my own work. And not all work that I hear and like holds that promise for me in whatever particular stage of development I’m at when I hear the particular work.

So it’s not that I have not connected with the work of these other authors whose books I don’t buy, but rather that my path toward purchase is an obstacle course. That a reader didn’t push me over the barriers is no insult to the work, but a result of the work required for me to catch my breath, wipe off the mud, and pull out my purse, and what I think I need to learn at the moment. Everyone has these obstacle courses and I can’t take it personally, and it’s certainly possible a real connection was made that day between someone in that room and one of my poems, such that something of it went home with them.

I was thinking about all the art I saw in my recent travel in Italy. That angel that caught the afternoon light in its robes. I was thinking about the guy who made that angel. He’s not named in the literature about the art in the church. I have no idea what he may have gotten paid — a pittance, a hefty purse? And here’s the thing: whatever money he got is long spent. He is long dead. I don’t remember how much I paid on airfare to get there, or what the apartment cost that I stayed in, or how much dinner cost that night. But I remember the angel. I can’t seem to shake the angel.


Sense and Nonsense, on Bosch and Ashbery

A recent Atlantic magazine had an article about Hieronymus Bosch and poems by John Ashbery. Why am I willing to be bemused, amused, and intrigued by Bosch’s puzzling presentations, but feel impatient at Ashbery’s? Is it, again, the insistence of my mind in meaning-making when encountering the coin of my realm: words? I can let images be, but words I insist make sense. So when I encounter the, to me, ironically titled “Whatever the Old Man Does Is Always Right” and its folderol such as: “All cabbages and cukes are on sale./That’s because there was a rumor of shortages/in the flanks of winter, before we were on the scene/or were of a responsible age…” and “Alarm is a form of handwriting this time. Wash your basement./This is him doing a moose soup….” I must wonder if this isn’t some vast conspiracy of a joke. Ashbery has been cited as one of the best poets of our time. I balk. Yet I gaze with gladness at Bosch’s beleaguered bat-like creature half under the bed raising an envelope with what seems like an agonized cry toward a skeleton at the door, or the pale human legs protruding from the mouth of a giant fish head. This I can tolerate? And also confounding is that I am interested in asemic work. How is it I can stare at nonsensical writing that deliberately says nothing and can feel something? I want a message. Listen for it. Search. I have sought Waldo. I can see easily the dalmation in the dapple. I have paid to hear the future. “Alarm is a form of handwriting…” Indeed. There is something on the wall. Perhaps it is a splash of moose soup.


Forbidden Fruit: Amy MacLennan’s The Body, A Tree

In spite of the degree to which I use the word “fuck” in all its forms in my vocabulary, poetry-wise I am a prude. I don’t even really write about amore much at all, much less the sexy aspect of it. I am so very impressed by the sensual poems that Amy MacLennan has in her new collection The Body, A Tree. Listen to this: “…a molasses of lovemaking,/ we poured ourselves on to each other/then in….” And hear the mm’s and ticks in this: “I kiss your palm, ten more/minutes, I imagine your hands/covered in oil, every speck/of me slicked…” Yikes. I’m blushing. But I admire how she’s, if you’ll pardon the expression, “pulling this off.” She’s “doing it” with a “light hand.” Ugh, see? I’m embarrassed, so fall to winking and nudging like some victim of St. Vitus’s Dance. Anyway, a fine, sensuous collection. Lick it up.