a talk given at Laurel Books, Oakland,
for National Poetry Month
Thank you for coming. We’d like this evening to be a celebration of poetry and a presentation of the kind of poetry Adelle and I write. Since 1996, April has been designated as National Poetry Month. The Academy of American Poets announced that their goal was to “increase the visibility, presence, and accessibility of poetry in our culture.” That word “accessibility” is problematical when applied to poetry. Many people find poetry “inaccessible”—difficult to understand, at times perhaps infuriatingly “obscure,” full of things which some people may understand but which are opaque to many. Why can’t poets just say what’s on their mind? Gertrude Stein—no paragon of “accessibility”—gave this as an answer. She was lecturing at the University of Chicago and she was asked about her notorious line, “rose is a rose is a rose.” She replied,
Now listen. Can’t you see that when the language was new—as it was with Chaucer and Homer—the poet could use the name of a thing and the thing was really there. He could say ‘O moon,’ ‘O sea,’ ‘O love,’ and the moon and the sea and love were really there. And can’t you see that after hundreds of years had gone by and thousands of poems had been written, he could call on those words and find that they were just wornout literary words. The excitingness of pure being had withdrawn from them; they were just rather stale literary words. Now the poet has to work in the excitingness of pure being; he has to get back that intensity into the language. We all know that it’s hard to write poetry in a late age; and we know that you have to put some strangeness, as something unexpected, into the structure of the sentence in order to bring back vitality to the noun. Now it’s not enough to be bizarre; the strangeness in the sentence structure has to come from the poetic gift, too. That’s why it’s doubly hard to be a poet in a late age. Now you all have seen hundreds of poems about roses and you know in your bones that the rose is not there. All those songs that sopranos sing as encores about ‘I have a garden! oh, what a garden!’ Now I don’t want to put too much emphasis on that line, because it’s just one line in a longer poem. But I notice that you all know it; you make fun of it, but you know it. Now listen! I’m no fool. I know that in daily life we don’t go around saying ‘…is a…is a…is a…’. Yes, I’m no fool; but I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.
Now, there’s another problem we need to deal with as well. If we’re going to celebrate poetry, wouldn’t it be a good idea to tell people what poetry is? Surely everyone knows at least more or less what poetry is—but what is it exactly? What is its essence—what are those qualities we absolutely need to see if we’re going to call something a poem? There are “poetry sections” in book stores. What is in them? I have been writing poetry in one form or another since 1955, and I have written many articles and even books about poetry. You’d think I’d have at least a glimmer of what poetry is. But, to tell you the truth, I don’t. If we ask exactly what an automobile is, we can come up with some elements which might apply to any automobile—and without which you would have something other than an automobile. It has to move, for example. But poetry? The problem is that there have been a number of activities over the centuries and they have all been called “poetry.” But very often they are quite distant from one another. Does poetry have to rhyme? In some periods, yes, but in others no. Classical poetry didn’t rhyme. Can poetry be its diametrical opposite—prose? Yes. There exists a creature called the “prose poem.” Does a poem have to have some sort of “form” which can be reproduced by other people?—the form of a sonnet, for example. Yes, but not always. And people have produced 14-line poems which they have called “sonnets” but which have no regular meter and no rhyme—usually defining characteristics of sonnets. The fact is that poetry has no essence. It can be—almost—anything. But if it has no essence, it does have a history. It is a name that has been given to a number of highly disparate activities which are in some ways related but in others not. Rhyme can be one aspect of poetry—but it doesn’t apply to all forms of the art. Further: poetry is created for different reasons and purposes. There are poems which are self-expressive—this is what I feel—but there are also poems which have very little to do with self-expression. (For years people have been trying to figure out exactly who Shakespeare was by reading his poems and plays. Their efforts haven’t been particularly successful. It may be that Shakespeare’s poems and plays aren’t especially “self-expressive.”) Poetry can be used for idealistic purposes; it can be the conveyer of uplifting thoughts: “Life is real, life is earnest, / And the grave is not its goal,” wrote Longfellow. But it can also be immensely cynical, satirical, like the work of Alexander Pope or certain lines by T.S. Eliot. There have been critics who believed that poetry was essentially irony—saying something like the opposite of what you mean.
So what are we celebrating? An ancient art form with an immensely complicated history which cannot be reduced to any particular definition. The minute you define poetry, poetry slips away from the definition and tells you, “I’m not that because I’m this.” But to say this about poetry is also to say that poetry is free—not only free-floating but free. Any individual poem is a momentary definition of poetry, but the definition belongs only to that moment. The next moment, poetry will be something else. We poets are always trying to catch at the reins of Pegasus, which has its own kind of horse sense and will go wherever it wishes.
honor the fire
which holds us—
in the east,
in the west,
7 PASSAGES FROM A NOTEBOOK PLUS A POEM
“She’s a Language writer,” said WBAI’s Janet Coleman to me. Coleman was speaking of a writer she liked. In a way, that statement was odd. What we call “Language writing” arose out of a discussion—often a fierce and heated discussion—conducted by a group of writers located primarily in California and New York. Lyn Hejinian told me that Bob Perelman’s “Talks” series was instituted as a forum for the presentation, discussion and criticism of the work these writers were producing. I am not speaking here of criticism of Language poetry from poets outside the group. I am speaking of criticism of Language poetry from poets within the group. Language poetry arose out of an argument people were having about the nature of poetry. Now, it seems, Language poetry has become a style of writing which anyone can adopt—without debate or discussion. You can say, “She’s a Language writer” and expect to be understood. Doesn’t that mean that the movement as a movement—something in motion—is over? Isn’t that the shift from something deeply in question—argued about by the participants—into something fixed: a style, a way of writing? You might as well be writing sonnets.
I think the concept of “honesty” arises out of various Puritanical impulses. Puritans want people to choose one thing or another—indeed, at the expense of another. The great Puritan epic, Paradise Lost, is all about a wrong choice. I think this is tied to “honesty”: “What I really feel is this...”—and you leave out all the things that glimmer around a subject and perhaps contradict it. It is of course good form in our society to be on the side of “honesty”—emotional and intellectual. No one would tell you that honesty isn’t a wonderful thing. And yet: is it? Does it hide something which might call it into question? Is there a sense in which it is a denial and not an affirmation? Nietzsche is one of the very few who would attack honesty in the name of healthy lying. I’m afraid—to be as honest as I can possibly be—I agree with him. “Honesty” demolishes fictions: fictions, I think, are life. Puritans like nothing more than to demolish fictions, to destroy myths. But I think that myth is the only adequate way to understand the world—and that the Puritan position is itself in fact (what else?) a fiction, though it is a fiction claiming a moral superiority which it does not actually possess. It is the supreme arrogance of Puritanism that it believes its one fiction takes utter precedence over all other fictions: Puritan “honesty” is thus a kind of monotheism. The question is not whether one supports lies (“evasiveness”) or truth (“honesty”): the question is what kinds of fictions give life, what kinds give death?...
To a friend who asked questions: People tend to believe in “honesty” as an absolute: it’s always a good thing. And people get praised for their “honesty”—not necessarily for any particular kind of honesty, simply for being “honest.” But, if there are no absolutes, it’s possible that the virtue of honesty has its limitations, even its negations—especially when it becomes anti-mythology. I’m afraid I have a deep distrust of things Puritan—not to mention things everybody praises. In at least some senses, “honesty” is anti imagination: Tell the truth, be honest, don’t lie. To praise “honesty” is to praise not making fictions. Is that what we wish to tell our poets? Is that any way to arrive at new myths? Isn’t “honesty” an aspect of the Puritan distrust of the imagination—the impulse that made them close down the theaters in Shakespeare's time?
Do tough guys in Brooklyn still say dese and dose for these and those? The Greek words for god and goddess are, respectively, theos and thea. The Roman words are deus and dea…The Romans were tough guys, too.
When I was in New York over forty years ago—1960? 1961?—I wished to make a journal like this but had great difficulty doing it. Now, the words flow forth. Adelle says, “That’s because, then, you wanted to be a writer. Now, you are a writer.” Undoubtedly, I lacked confidence then. But, even more, I lacked subject matter. Now, I have subjects aplenty. If you are lucky, time will give you subjects—a great gift—and these will form the base of your perceptions. Never—or only rarely—fully conscious, subject matter will nudge you into language. It constantly colors your words, making your words mean more than they seem to initially. The word “dark” in Dana Gioia’s work is subject matter. And subject matter is history.
Collage has been called, by Jerome Rothenberg and others, the art form of the twentieth century, and collage by its very nature moves against the idea of private property. Did T.S. Eliot ask permission of all the people he quoted in The Waste Land? The possible hazards of the collagist’s sometimes cavalier appropriation of materials were demonstrated when San Francisco artist Jess sent his “Tricky Cad”—an homage to/surrealist parody of “Dick Tracy”—to Dick Tracy’s creator, Chester Gould. Gould was furious and threatened legal action. Jess hastily removed the “Tricky Cad” section from his book, O! (1960).
“Poet, / Be like God” (Jack Spicer, “Imaginary Elegies”). The problem with this formulation—hardly original with Spicer—lies in the notions of “world” and “creativity.” God creates ex nihilo, out of nothing: there is no “world” until God “creates” it. The poet’s “creativity” is not like that. The poet inhabits a world which is always impinging upon him/her. The poet “creates” from that world, not from nothing. Consequently, the poet’s “creativity” is significantly different from God’s; it is closer to that of the jazz musician who is always reacting to something given: a set of chords, a tune. But Spicer’s line expresses the desire to forget that fact, to imagine oneself as without precedent, without history.
Is what we call “love” a fiction which masks something else? Can the same word reasonably refer both to what a child feels towards his parents and to what a man feels when he desires a woman? The word is covered over with so much history, much of it metaphysical and in many ways outmoded. Even people who don’t believe in the metaphysics use the word—it haunts our psyches and our language. How would we describe what we call “love” if we were to step outside all that? Do two people “endure life’s joys and sorrows together” or does such language, so often used, actually obscure the real “relationship” between a man and a woman? The classic definition of “faith” is from St. Paul, Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Doesn’t that sound like a definition of fiction, filled as fiction is with desire (“things hoped for”) and, certainly, with “the evidence of things not seen”? Further: Mightn’t it be a definition of madness? Isn’t madness shot through with desire? Don’t mad people sometimes see things which aren’t there? What happens if we step outside all that—all that language about love? What doors open? What doors close? What is the bond between a child and a parent if we no longer use the word? What is the “relationship” between a couple? What, indeed, is a “couple”—is it related (and how is it related?) to “coupling,” sexual activity? What causes the bonds between people? Should we say “love” causes the bonds? Have we said anything when we say that word? Or is the word an empty word, essentially meaningless—perhaps merely a way of affirming indirectly the presence of a god who in fact isn’t there but whom we nevertheless identify with “love” (“God is Love”) and who would exist even less than he does if his existence were not constantly being upheld by the fact of people’s constant talk about “love”? I once told a little girl who asked about the existence of Santa Claus that many things were “real” even if they didn’t exist. What is “love” in our culture?
A POEM OF DEPARTURE
for Edouard Muller
I heard a woman sobbing
Outside my window
Late last night
But when I went to look
I heard a woman
Not find her
I heard a woman wailing
As if she felt
As she passed by
Open to the dark
She was it seemed
Possibility of consolation
As she gave herself to
For no reason
I could know or see
RESPONSES TO MANUSCRIPTS SENT ME
I thought it might be interesting to share these thoughts of mine—if only to give Alsop Review readers a sense of my limitations and prejudices. I often read manuscripts sent to me by friends or by strangers interested in getting my opinion of their work. Here are selections from two of my responses. I’ve edited out any way of identifying the writers.
I liked all of these as “expressions.” I’m not surprised that they were taken for publication. You’ve given a good deal of thought to line endings, shape of poem on page and dramatic use of the visual. I also liked the odd use of certain words, and there are syntactical surprises as well. Everything has a slight Surrealistic edge and an awareness of the tradition of poetry as well. Though I would quibble in a few places, you employ a number of techniques with considerable intelligence and skill, and they all work well.
What I don’t really see in this work is a breakthrough into anything really new. I’m reminded of poetry I’ve read, but nothing seems genuinely astonishing. I think this is partly because the poems remain “I” centered—despite their linguistic play. These are “good poems” and I enjoyed reading them and I thought there were many strong lines, but I’m not changed in any way by them. Everything you do you do well, but there is a certain degree of familiarity about everything you do.
I just recently came upon this passage. It’s by Michael Schmidt, from his book, The Story of Poetry: From Pope to Burns. Schmidt is talking about the English 18th century:
We must concede to [Matthew] Arnold that in the eighteenth century there was an acceptable middle voice, the polite man speaking to polite men, and it became possible for lesser writers to compose yards and yards of verse with smooth efficiency, and to be celebrated in the coffee house or in the Spectator. Verse composition was a polite, acquirable skill. One had strict rules of diction and form to follow, and whoever observed them could claim the title of poet. There was a market, too, meagre but measurable, for such verse in the magazines and among publishers, a market that, though unstable, made it possible for poets to depend on something other than private patronage. After the wonderful volatilities of the preceding century, the endeavour of many poets was to be to stabilise the language and the market for verse, to bring it wholly within the parameters of the polite, the instructive and serviceable. Poetry turned towards its market, the print-buying public. It was a market in which some poets, Smart, Chatterton [Blake] and Fergusson among them, spectacularly failed.
My immediate reaction to that was How familiar it sounds! We too have our “acceptable middle voice,” and though it is not quite the same as the acceptable middle voice of the 18th century British writer, we too teach poetry in hundreds of workshops as “a polite, acquirable skill.” There are of course many variations on that middle voice, but it is nonetheless there—with a vengeance. Against that, of course, were “mad” poets like Smart and Blake, who, Schmidt points out rightly, “spectacularly failed” but who have nonetheless lasted.
The question I would ask is this: What kind of madness is possible for you? How can you get beyond the techniques you have learned to use so very well? I keep coming back to your love of The Waste Land, a very encouraging thing to my mind. That poem absolutely stunned people; some people couldn’t even decide whether the work was in fact a poem. It brought people into an area in which they were confused, uncertain, taken by surprise—and it was obscure, which meant that people didn’t know how to understand it, how to categorize it. I think you need to do something like that. You’re fine with poetic technique, but I think you need to “lose control”—you’re too good at “writing poems”! Do you know the story of Diaghilev and Jean Cocteau? Diaghilev asked Cocteau to write a production for him. Cocteau asked, “What shall I do?” Diaghilev answered, “Etonne moi,” astonish me. I think you need to write something astonishing—something, perhaps, that you’re not “allowed” to do.
One of the things I’ve done in workshops is, first, to have individual people read their poems. Then I take two of these people and have them read the poems against one another, simultaneously. This technique is of course based on performances Adelle and I do. But what happens to the poems as they collide and run up against one another? Do the poems change because of that experience? Something of that sort is of course happening in The Waste Land, as wildly different contexts come bang against one another. What happens when we discover that we do not have a “voice” but “voices”—and that some of them are not even our own?
Thank you for showing me these poems—the result, I take it, of a course in writing.
The poems were easy to read and pleasant enough. I wish I could say that they were more than this, but I didn’t see anything more there.
If you really wish for poetry to become, as you say, “my lifework,” you really need to delve deeper than you have done here. I don’t know what sort of instruction or encouragement you were given in the course, but I don’t think it was very good. You talk of revising, and I know from conversations with you that you are a person of deep feeling. But if you are satisfied with this work, then I believe you need to rethink the whole subject of poetry, of what it is, what it does, what it might be. The poems are cheerful, pleasant, but they don’t try to do very much. There is no linguistic experimentation, there is no delving into problematical feeling. Did you think I’d like the poem about the Pope because I’m an ex Catholic? There is no exploration in that poem. The Pope is simply a villain and you are full of self-congratulations as you take a position you believe to be better than that of the Pope. As you say, you “dream a different dream.” Hooray for me. I’d make a better Pope than the Pope.
If you are satisfied with this kind of writing, then go on with it. But if you wish to be a poet in the way that Rilke spoke of poetry in “Archaic Torso of Apollo”—“You must change your life”—then I’m afraid that this work is far from adequate.
I’m sorry to be so negative. I think that part of the problem was your teacher, who accepted this as good (or at least adequate) writing. My feeling is that you need to break away from the good-humored, charming person who wrote these good-humored, charming poems and inquire of other people you might be, even if that means living in territory that is problematical, out of control—alive.
Do you have the courage to change? Or will you go on taking more courses in which teachers tell you that your work is ok, good, interesting--even if in fact it is none of these things. To put it bluntly: You have been suckered into the poetry business and told lies about your work. You are not alone in this. That is the best thing, the very best thing, I can tell you. You need to start again.