That is, the oral presentation or performance of a written work, which probably began its life in the imagination of the author as a sound or a string of random words heard aloud — probably a worthwhile enterprise… There are good things in store when it comes to venues that feature these extroverted modes of expression. And when David Orr’s shout-out in Gotham is then coupled with this blog-sphere post, entitled, “Is Poetry Poorly Appreciated As Previously Thought?”, we might surmise that we’ve made the long-awaited, proverbial turn.
We might learn the names of rock-star-poets and believe in a paradigm shift of epic proportions.
Not so fast. Del Marbrook, in the post above, calls into question any popularity that pushes for more accessible works of art. He argues, I think, convincingly that poets may have good reason to worry about “dogma” creeping into these literary launch points; and by dogma he cites certain Facebook diatribes on how some poetry is “crap” because it keeps the reader/listener in the dark and savors ambiguity.
Of course, the other way we may approach this stalemate is to broach the subject of why the poet wants to write in verse to begin with. I mean, a good novel might spell a reprieve from living in the trailer park. Ask J.K. Rowling. Even a decent novel might get you a gig at the Community College, and from there, who knows if somebody with Hollywood contacts is listening and wants to talk screen play. The next thing you know, you’re parleying that prose into all kinds of deposable income, which helps to fuel an economic uptick… So, why does the writer even waste his time with the contemplation of enjambment, line breaks and the whole iambic pentameter fixation?
My answer is that we do it for a variety of reasons, but that the most elegant among them is that we don’t want to impose a narrative arc where there is no narrative arc. And we’d like to position ourselves at the cusp of first-hand experience and the self’s attempt to blurt out the as-yet unfinished meaning of each isolated and successive episode that life has to offer. If that sounds like a mouthful, I meant it to be.
And I wholeheartedly affirm both/and. Both David Orr and Del Marbrook… I can do this primary because accessibility is not inherently bad, or of the devil, any more than ambiguity or, heaven forbid, massive confusion are.
You–the reader of these very words–may assume this is all a matter of personality. Different strokes and all… I prefer not to disagree with you, except to say, Do you actually know what you think and feel and why? Are you tracing back to its lair the monster beneath your bed?
The problem is that we treat events and people as problem, which require solutions. Fixing things has never been the poet’s modus operandi. Paying attention has been and will always be. Again, I have no problem with giant crowds, kicking back a few drinks and enjoying Billy Collins in Manhattan — but then I’d like that same audience to have the discipline or the wherewithal to go themselves into the dark closets. Go there and prepare for that solitary wrestling match with angels or demons.
Willed In Autumn
The room is red, like ourselves
On the inside. We enter
And my heart ticks out its tune
Of soon, soon. I kneel
On the bed and wait. The silence
Behind me is you, shallow breaths
That rustle nothing. This will last.
I grip the sheets, telling time
To get lost. I close my eyes
So the red is darkener now, deep,
A willed distance that backs away
The faster we approach.
I dream a little plot of land and six
Kid goats. Every night it rains.
Every morning sun breaks through
And the earth is firm again under our feet.
I am writing this so it will stay true.
Go for a while into your life,
But meet me come dusk
At a bar where music sweeps out
From a jukebox choked with ragged bills.
We’ll wander back barefoot at night,
Carrying our shoes to save them
From the rain. We’ll laugh
To remember all the things
That slaughtered us a lifetime ago,
And at the silly goats, greedy for anything
Soft enough to crack between their teeth.
There’s a way of reading the Wall Street Protests as something more than training for the NYPD.
There’s a way of looking beyond the lack of a parade permit and the pepper spray and the 80 arrests — and it’s the way of The Odyssey:
“… and there is now this greater evil still:
my home and all I have are being ruined.
Mother wanted no suitors, but like a pack
they came — sons of the best men here among them –
lads with no stomach for introduction
to Ikarios, her father across the sea;
he would require a wedding gift, and give her
to someone who found favor in her eyes.
No; these men spend their days around our house
killing our beeves and sheep and fatted goats,
carousing, soaking up our good dark wine,
not caring what they do. They squander everything…”
So says Telemakhos, the son of Odysseus, in Book II of Homer’s epic narrative. And the reason I bring this up now is that the squandering continues. To this day, the corporate elite lives off the resources that we have stored for the vulnerable of this vast household, known as the United States of America. And to this day, the conniving of Penelope’s suitors threatens to dismantle those structures that protect us from avarice and greed and gluttony.
An avid watcher of the news may take a dim view of the clashes with police, dismissing the peaceful marchers as freeloaders. Not so! Here’s a quote from Chris Hedges, former reporter with the New York Times and author of The Death of the Liberal Class:
The real radicals have seized power and they are decimating all impediments to the creation of a neo-feudalistic corporate state, one in which there is a rapacious oligarchic class, a thin managerial elite, and two-thirds of this country live in conditions that increasingly push families to subsistence level… They want us to remain passive and to remain frightened. And as long as we remain passive and frightened, entranced with their electronic hallucinations, we are not a threat. … The moment people come out and do this [kind of protest], the corporate state is terrified — and if you doubt me, look around you at the huge numbers of cops, and not only that but the kind of brutality the cops have visited on peaceful protesters.
You see, the point is not that we should simply work hard, keep our noses to the grind stone and take whatever wages trickle down to us from on high. Protestantism’s ethic also implies that we pay attention, and that we debunk the protocol by which our households are abused. What is it that we want? High-paying jobs by which we can subjugate others before they subjugate us? Or meaningful and generous opportunities to serve and to be served?
The poetics of the past prove very enlightening as we venture a response to these core questions. Classic literature, we like to think, is classic because of the truth that it bequeaths from one generation to the next, from one culture to the next. That is, we don’t memorize verbiage from The Iliad and The Odyssey for the sake of passing a pre-requisite at the Community College. Rather, we engage its artistry at a subterranean level. The so-called “primary world,” to which literary critics refer with occasional disdain, may be read heroically from the perspective of the “secondary world” of the creative genius. The masterful work of J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, may speak with eloquence and insight at a table where the evil Sauron is the least of our problems.
Wake up, you English Majors! You Interdisciplinary Humanities Scholars! We may have a role for you after all.
–By Warren Slesinger
Liftboat (lyfe.boht) n-s 1. A small boat
for saving lives at sea with a centerboard,
two or more sets of oars, and a rudder;
it’s capacity depends on the ratio of men
to women and children, and its safety on
the height of the waves and the strength
of the wind: a dazzling white lifeboat with
“America the Beautiful” stenciled on the side.
2. A means of escape in a crisis. See lifeboat
ethics. 3. The situation of someone fortunate
enough to find a seat in a lifeboat surrounded
by splashing, sputtering people too numerous
to be take on board, the occupants cursing
and clubbing the knuckles that clutch the side.
See Third World.
In the wondrous tale that Homer tells, Telemakhos goes in search of revelation. He leaves the confines of his home, which is being plundered, and seeks word of his father’s life. Telemakhos travels by ship, over treacherous seas. He’s sort of like the biblical character, Jonah, in that respect. Or even the Apostle Paul, getting shipwrecked on Malta… and on his way to trial in Rome.
And so, here’s our metaphor. Not just a lifeboat. But ultimately a lifeboat that takes us to shore, where there is news, good news!
Richard Wilbur has my back as I tell you that the season of garden parties is officially over. Done. Finis. Some may linger and hope for more tuxedo talk on the veranda. But for all intents and purposes, the poet (recently called “our greatest living formal poet”) has left the proverbial building… Should we follow him?
As we left the garden-party
By the far gate,
There were many loitering on
Who had come late
And few arriving still,
Though the lawn lay
Like a fast-draining shoal
Of ochre day.
Curt shadows in the grass
Hatched every blade,
And now on pedestals
of mounting shade
Stood all our friends — iconic,
Now, in mien,
Half-lost in dignities
Till now unseen.
There were hostess’ hands
Held out to greet
The scholar’s limp, his wife’s
Quick pecking feet,
And there was wit’s cocked head,
And there the sleek
And gaze-enameled look
Of beauty’s cheek.
We saw now, loitering there
Knee-deep in night,
How even the wheeling children
Moved in a rite
Or masque, or long charade
Where we, like these,
Had blundered into grand
Filling our selves as sculpture
Fills the stone.
We had not played so surely,
Had we known.
Now, it’s unclear to me how the New York Times article on the “Grand Old Man” jives with what Wilbur is saying in the poem above. In that piece, published in January of this year, David Orr claims that the publication of Anterooms reveals the New Formalist guru to be unmoved by decades of fragmented free-verse. Whereas others indulge in self-lyric-rants, juxtaposing more images than MTV in its Soundgarden heyday — Wilbur continues to blend and to streamline. Moreover, says Orr, “It’s a matter of remaining poised in the face of a vast and freezing indifference.” And yet, what’s there to remain so poised about?
“We had not played so surely,/Had we known.” That line in and of itself sounds like an aging writer who wishes he had cut loose on occasion. In fact, all of his acquaintances may do well to jettison their yuppie sensibilities. It would behoove them to review “A Dubious Night,” published on the heels of World War Two and the bloating of suburbia:
A bell diphthonging in an atmosphere
Of shying night air summons some to prayer
Down in the town, two deep lone miles from here,
Yet wallows faint or sudden everywhere,
In every ear, as if the twist wind wrung
Some ten years’ tangled echoes from the air.
What kyries it says are mauled among
The queer elisions of the mist and murk,
Of lights and shapes; the senses were unstrung,
Except that one star’s synecdochic smirk
Burns steadily to me, that’s nothing odd
And firm as ever is the masterwork.
I weary of the confidence of God.
Alrighty then… Richard Wilbur has something about which to gush. Weariness, among other things, slips through the (above) tercets and gives us a glimpse of the inner self. “The confidence of God” hangs out there like a stray nose hair. Do we dare snip it with a pair of tweezers? Are you kidding? Not on your life! And not on my life!
Wilber, I believe, has left the garden-party. He arrived early, enjoyed some appetizers and left before Dana Gioia could spill his aperitif on the tablecloth. He’s always been leaving, (Wilber, that is) and therein’s the difference.
Back in the 1980’s Gioia’s “Notes on the New Formalism“ developed the thesis that “Formal verse, like free verse, is neither intrinsically bad nor good.” Amen… And yet, when he describes the Hebrew Psalms as being created by “the people of the Book,” who concerned themselves “with limiting the improvisatory freedom of the bard for the fixed message of the text” — Gioia over-reaches. Unlike the readings brought to bear by doctrinaire theologians, the Rabbis interpreted the Psalms, the Prophets and the Torah with abandon. That is, on-the-fly. By the-seat-of-their-pants. And that makes a difference when we consider the present experiences of “exodus” and “exile” that poets endure.
Yes, Gioia’s right when he decries the dull tone of various “so-much-depends-upon-“ imitations. But when it comes to structure and the panicked embrace of form — we do well to see it like scaffolding. What’s built has no blueprint except that one which we temporarily secure amid hurricane force winds. William Faulkner hit the nail on the head when he compared writing a modern or postmodern novel to the crafting of a chicken coop. Sometimes any old board will do.