English departments are “hostile territory, dangerous turf.” That’s from an essay by George Garrett, but that notion permeates the 1970 collection Writers as Teachers: Teachers as Writers, edited by Jonathan Baumbach. Bill Manhire told me that he picked up this book in the early 70s in London, and he seems to have the only copy in the country of New Zealand, so the paperback on my desk is borrowed from him. Baumbach’s book arises from and reflects sympathy between 1960s expressivist or “Authentic Voice” composition pedagogy and Creative Writing programs then springing up in North America and Britain. Students are “secret outlaws, shooting the deer of the king in private Sherwood Forest,” as Baumbach puts it. To write powerfully is to be empowered. This radical activity, necessarily nurtured under the radar, requires unlearning whatever rules the “cops and teachers” have handed down.
Dated, yes. The cover illustration is pretty trippy: a pipe-smoking bearded hippy guy is strolling across a giant pencil, while mirrored below him, a pipe-smoking bearded professorial guy totes his briefcase in the other direction. Are they arch-enemies or the same person? Might the one in the suit pop into a classroom-phone booth and transform into the one in the fringed sweater, hands free so that he may liberate the masses? It’s a wonderfully passionate book, though, idealistic and caustic and flippant and practical. You can see why it energized a young English professor from New Zealand as he worked up his course in “Original Composition.” (That sort of course title was a common way of avoiding the taint of Americanness attached to “creative writing” as an academic field—and thereby of playing Robin Hood with university resources.)
Any community, no matter how positive and empowering, requires an opposite: we-feeling is defined by exclusion as well as inclusion. Many of the people who founded creative writing programs did so by breaking away from English departments structurally, fiscally, and ideologically. Having earned my own Ph.D. after the hottest battles died down, at some level I personally don’t get it; the worlds of academic English studies and academic creative writing seem more alike than different. I know many who feel that universities—creative writers, English professors, whatever—dominate the resources available to U.S. poets; that it’s difficult to keep going outside of the contemporary system of academic patronage; and that M.F.A. programs in particular favor certain aesthetics and identities. It isn’t a neat binary opposition—people move in and out of university affiliation, there are enormous differences among institutions, and there are plenty of other intersecting battles to fight over region, race, politics, etc.—but in the U.S., to me, being inside or outside of academe seems like a more significant divide than what department you’re in.
It’s different here. First of all, at least theoretically, New Zealand universities are equal in prestige and resources, so many people go to school where they live. You don’t have to stop attending that reading series you love because you decided to study creative writing full-time. While tuition remains a big barrier for many potential students, costs aren’t as astronomical as in the States; access to education seems wider, more democratic. The “other” of a New Zealand writing community is often regional: there’s the Wellington/ Auckland thing, and more powerfully the South Island/ North Island thing, never mind New Zealand/ Australia or Australasian-Pacific-Southern Hemisphere/ All Those People Up North Who Forget About Us. A writing community’s opposite isn’t so much defined by university affiliation because academe and regional identity intersect more than in the U.S. At least, that’s what I think this week.
In any case, one’s elsewhere shifts according to where one’s standing at the moment. Plus, individuals bring their own elsewheres to any communal enterprise. For the year you’re in a workshop you think: I identify with this group because we’re obsessed with the same things and we’re helping each other, as opposed to those other people (employers, friends, family) who don’t care if we get the writing done. But at times you also think you don’t quite fit, that you’re different from everyone else, or you’re in irritated awe of the person who’s emerging as a star. It’s when it’s almost over or in retrospect that a warm glow softens those edges and the sense of belonging really takes hold. Sometimes. It’s slippery, this idea of community, says the pipeless beardless woman sitting high up in the English Department, thinking about the creative writers in the Glenn Schaeffer house, on the other side of the giant pencil.
I returned to Wellington yesterday from Auckland where, during the wonderful “Poetry Off the Page” course she co-teaches with Helen Sword, Michele Leggott presented me with a Tapa Notebook. This practice is a part of an ongoing nzepc project: visiting writers are presented with an empty, unlined spiral notebook and asked to fill up the pages and send it back at their convenience. It then becomes part of the library archive and scanned excerpts are posted on nzepc. Tapa is a cloth made in the Pacific from pounded bark; the tapa rectangle on my book’s cover is painted with black-lined, persimmon-red petals.
The instructions suggest inscribing it with “poetry or other notations of value.” Drawings and pasted-in items are fine, although I was told anecdotally that Helen’s inclusion of a French muffin-wrapper, buttery crumbs and all, was a bit traumatic for the librarians. I just toted mine to a staff seminar on Keats’ letters. Heidi Thomson argued that Keats is never unconscious of his interlocutors, in letters or poems, but what kind of audience do notebook-keepers imagine? I have been scrawling bits and pieces in little pads all through this trip, sometimes going back to pull out and type up some information I’ve been given or a poem I began to draft in an airport, but I can’t imagine some student poring over them in an archive one day. If that ever happens: Reader, I apologize abjectly.
From my notes on Auckland:
13 May, Laureate reading in the Aotea Centre: During Manhire’s “Hotel Emergencies,” Michele’s guide dog Olive, also up on stage, puts her head down on her paws & begins to look bored.
14 May, festival panel on publishing: one of the editors says that, historically, the invention of a cheaper format (steam-powered rotary printing press, the e-book) always catalyzes an explosion in reading & publishing. Another says that traditional books will continue to be published as “beautiful objects.” There will be fewer of them & they will increase in price. All agree mass market paperbacks are out: Kindle goes to the beach instead.
Best of the Best NZ Poems reading: Emma Neale gives an electric performance of “Spark,” about a child learning how to say “light.” Throughout, a little patch of brightness bobs across her cheek, a reflection from an earring. You can’t see it on the monitors.
My father John Keats eases a scalpel between the cork and the bottle.
My father Langston Hughes gives his camel jacket to the coat-check girl.
My father Allen Ginsberg insists I must eat my broccoli broccoli broccoli
15 May, Mauri Ola reading: Tusiata Avia: “It’s a big poem & this is a small stage so I’m going to read it in a contained way so I don’t fall off or burst into flames.” A tattoo keeps flashing out from the cuff of her blazer.
Kiwi expression from Richard: “to pack a sad.”
Love-dirty and almost bald, / the animals peer down from their high shelf.
17 May, Auckland University: Chris (student-blogger) is at the front of the room discussing Chinese dissident poetry with Helen & Michele. Michele is saying something like, “Well, we don’t want this assignment to instigate a crackdown on an artist by an authoritarian government.” Beautiful Olive is sprawled across the blue-beige carpet. I imagine she wants to go outside and smell things, but maybe that’s me.
“At some profound level,” writes Damien Wilkins in “American Microphone,” a very funny story about a dismal public reading, “I think of Americans as dangerously carbonated people.” This confirms my U.S.-Soft Drink Association Hypothesis as to why New Zealanders keep calling me “refreshing.”
Wilkins was the person who told me to look for Emily Dobson’s first book, A Box of Bees—this as I dissolved sugar into a cup of Earl Grey in his office and tried not to get lost in his spectacular view of the harbor, framed by a blooming tree that neither of us could name. Dobson, like Hinemoana Baker (see “Milk and honey,” April 13, 2011), was an MA student at the International Institute of Modern Letters a few years ago. As Damien and I talked about how workshops affect writers, he described how Dobson’s classmates nudged her prize-winning portfolio towards the topic of bee-keeping. Dobson was born into a family of apiarists in Hawkes Bay and, at least as I remember the story, didn’t initially see poetic gold in what were, to her, the ordinary details of childhood. Whether or not this particular workshop tale is quite true, it suggests one positive effect of belonging to a community of smart readers. They help you recognize your most urgently interesting material.
A Box of Bees, based on this portfolio, was published by Victoria University Press in 2005. Its epigraph from Sappho highlights a fragmentary and sensuous quality in the untitled poems that follow, all in couplets (this made me think of H.D., also ambivalent about sweetness). In fact, the poem-cells fit together in a patterned comb. The hive of the family is central to this book; Dobson portrays it as both fragile and dangerously powerful. The speaker also makes many flights outward. Narratives of desire and travel intersect with a portrayal of domestic enclosure. Hives protect but they are also open, and here I return to an aesthetic of porousness or seepage that I keep noticing. There are several examples I could choose—“The blue sign beside the hot road,” for one, involves invading German soldiers, scraps of Greek, and goats in the house—but the best is probably the poem near the end that is framed by the lines:
Sylvia Plath and Sir Edmund Hillary both kept bees.
Oh yes, the air is full of honey and
the seas are dripping honey.
I am saturated with bees.
I have nothing to do with bees.
I have just about had enough
of the whole damned business.
This piece begins by invoking Plath, unsaintly patron of so many women writers, and the New Zealand mountaineer who’s a demi-god in these parts. As Dobson tells us in the book’s brief “Notes,” the rest of the poem collages quotes from The Upanishads and novels by Englishman Peter Ackroyd and Canadian Elizabeth Smart (source of the book’s fiercest swear word) in an artistic genealogy parallel to the family migrations traced here. The language zinging around has travelled great distances before melting into Dobson’s lines.
Seepage becomes suffusion in “Sylvia Plath and Sir Edmund Hillary both kept bees.” Bees have a reputation for diligence and subordination to the good of the community, and this is all a little too sweet for Dobson. Her tone of protest is, in fact, probably what makes me love this poem—I recognize that sick-to-death feeling when you’ve been too immersed in a writing project, plus I’ve been in a polite country long enough to be nostalgic for four-letter stingers. Dobson’s poem struggles against its own debts but is too sharp to get trapped in stickiness.
Researching poetic networks is making me feel anomalous. Partly this is just the familiar unfamiliarity of living in a different country, where every friendship is new and you’re never quite sure whether you understand people or they understand you. Some of my disorientation is minor and funny, like realizing in the middle of reciting “Spring-Sick” in Dunedin that oh, I have a northern hemisphere bias: April does not equal spring here. That was during an event at Circadian Rhythm organized by Emma Neale. She smiled down the long room, gave a brilliant mock flight-attendant introduction, and passed out candy in case our ears popped. When Diane Brown read some engaging sonnets about being an Aucklander dating a southerner and the possible local meanings of “southerner” began to explode in my brain, the psychic jet lag caught up with me. I had spent the morning wandering around a cloud-ridden city that reminded me of Liverpool, England; eaten terrific Korean food for lunch; watched the day turn brilliant from the tip of the Otago Peninsula, among yellow-eyed penguins and baby fur seals who gazed back at me curiously; and ended the day in an imaginary airplane, avoiding poems of mine containing swear-words, because New Zealanders are much more polite than people from New Jersey.
Being the featured reader at a poetry event in a city you’re visiting for the first time feels incredibly presumptuous. Here everybody is in the middle of their own long-running conversations, among friendships and rivalries and hierarchies you cannot detect. Even if you research the scene in advance, which I rarely find time to do well, you don’t figure out the important things until you’re driving away, or much later. How can you choose poems that will make those audience members glad they came?
After gawking at the stupendously scenic south island of New Zealand for much of the second half of April, I spent three days in Melbourne, Australia, giving scholarly talks and finishing with a reading among the mirrors and leopard-spotted throw rugs at Animal Orchestra. My visit was initiated by Jess Wilkinson, whom I met in San Diego, California at the Contemporary Women Writers conference in July 2010 (note how I don’t say “last summer”). I attended as many poetry sessions as I could, and so did she. We sipped wine by the hotel fireplace while Linda Kinnahan and Cynthia Hogue told us about the funniest crises they’d had to field as university administrators. We exchanged email addresses; although Jess was just finishing her doctorate at the time, she was hopeful that she could tap university funds to get me across the Tasman while I was down under. She seemed sparkly with delight during the whole conference, although she told me later what a rough year she’d had personally. When I met her again last week she wined and dined me with poets whose terrific work I should have known beforehand and didn’t, but they were nice to me anyway. After the reading I spent an hour talking about birth order, how to get work done, and what one should do with one’s life with Jess’ student, Daniel, and his friend, Hans, who is in medical school and aspires to practice anaesthesiology in disaster zones. Hans said this was his first poetry reading since his mother made him recite verses as a child to visitors, but he connected with Heterotopia after living in England, the Netherlands, Kuala Lumpur, and now Australia. As I anxiously prepared to read to poets whose work is quite different than mine, I could not have imagined Hans as a member of the audience.
Ann Vickery, who has published some of the most important scholarship on poetry networks, arranged a symposium while I was in Melbourne. Her very sharp paper on friendship both overlaps with and challenges my research into that slippery term community; I’m now thinking about whether friendship influences poetry itself more profoundly while community participation shapes the poetry’s dispersal and reception. And what are the boundaries of friendship anyway—is it fundamentally about feeling, the way community comes down to a subjective sense of belonging? Reading poetry by a person you know has an intimate charge but it’s all refracted through literary imperatives, mixed up with fiction, and anyway, that leaves out most of the basic stuff that entangles you in another human being’s life. Most friendships revolve around shared attitudes towards work and family and politics and religion, what you like to eat and drink, what media you’ll admit to consuming, what you like to do on Saturday. Maybe those relationships are figments too, but they feel less illusory.
Among kangaroos, one’s American weirdness is brightly illuminated. I went back to the hotel after the reading and watched the royal wedding on television while typing in passport numbers for online check-in. I flew to Cairns and came back from snorkelling to pictures of other U.S. citizens cheering the death of an infamous terrorist. I still think that fish are real but the mask is so estranging and all you can hear is your own respiration, a Darth Vader-ish heavy breathing. The animals are watching me watch them and I probably don’t want to know what they’ll tell their real friends about me later.
I keep muttering “Somebody loves us all.” It’s the last line of “Filling Station,” one of my favorite Elizabeth Bishop poems, and also the title of Damien Wilkins’ latest novel, a terrific book Chris and I have been reading. I recently pored through Bishop’s Collected Poems, too, to prepare for a seminar on her work. That’s probably why I keep chanting those words. It’s not an obscure blogger’s desperate mantra or anything.
My ten-year-old called me on it. “What does that mean anyway? Does that mean God?” In retrospect, his tone was probably suspicious. He’s a rationalist.
Well, it could refer to God, I said, and then I told him about Bishop’s poem. There’s a gas station, an Esso station, which is an old name for Exxon. It’s run by a family, and although it’s very dirty there are signs that someone has tried to brighten the place up—wicker furniture out front, a doily, a hairy begonia. That’s a flower, I said. The poem ends: “ESSO—SO—SO— / Somebody loves us all.” I babbled on that the line is mysterious, that it could signify just a wish for love, but that the “somebody” might also be someone in the family, expressing her devotion through begonias, as people do. Bishop lost both of her parents when she was very little, I finished, a little breathless, and took another bite of toast. I looked at my son’s freckled nose and pointy chin, thought about how beautiful he is, and reached over to trim the bruised bit off his apple.
He looked back at me fondly and said, “Esso—so—so stupid.”
Writing programs are often accused of producing homogenized, pasteurized work—whirring poems around in the workshop blender until the fat and flavor are consistent throughout, heating and cooling them to get rid of the interesting little microbes. Some strong teachers do produce student imitators. This can happen if your “teacher” is John Keats or Mina Loy, too, because when you fall in love with someone’s work the echoes tend to bounce around in your own lines. I’m now reading books that resulted from MA theses at the International Institute of Modern Letters, listening for a house style and other family resemblances, but what I’m finding is as mixed as the metaphors in this dreadful paragraph. That is, IIML graduates are writing different kinds of poems. If there’s a common aesthetic it’s one of porousness and exchange. As one example, take the last poem in Hinemoana Baker’s first book, Mātui | Needle.
“Whenua,” dedicated to “Ariki Noel Riley, b. 26.9.2003,” highlights the significance of place. Baker’s notes gloss the title as “land” and “placenta” in Te Reo Maori. Her mixture of languages roots the poem in Aotearoa. Further, the poem centers on the Maori practice of burying a newborn’s placenta and umbilical cord, a tradition emphasizing the relationship between human beings and the earth. The poem’s home is this moment—identified to the day—and its people are the “we” of the final stanza, participants in a resonant ceremony.
“Whenua” is also full of contrasts, though, between a commitment to place and the constant movement of the poem’s speaker and perspective. The poem begins
Some other year on this day
I paid forty-five thousand dinar
for Season Fruit and when it came
it was an apple on a plate.
Here is vagueness, reticence, imperfect communication, as the speaker travels through an unnamed Adriatic country. She walks by the sea; she mounts a train. Each of these moments is grounded and simultaneously shifty. The apple is “in season, utterly,” as are the local pears and radishes a few lines later; the sea is “without tides”; the train is “stationary.” The voice itself, though, is dislocating, mimicking travel’s weirdness. While Baker’s language is pared down and plain throughout most of the piece, her punctuation and capitalization are irregular and her narrative proceeds through fragmentary images.
The fifth stanza produces the biggest dislocation. Suddenly Baker remembers a phrase pencilled by her father into a Bible—“may the earth swarm with you”—and she is examining a “sac”:
we hold it up, each has a turn
our ears sizzle, we make
pronouns with our mouths, it hangs
heavy as a beehive from our fingers.
The poem is ebbing: from the wandering woman back through the sea to the placenta; from the apple back through the pollinated flower to the beehive; from I to we; from dispersion to Genesis. “Whenua”’s mystery makes it beautiful even if you don’t work out those correspondences, but its symmetry is deep and lovely too.
I wouldn’t say that Baker chooses home over travel in this poem. She juxtaposes them instead through image and diction, implicitly arguing for the importance of place and community wherever you are. In the 1991 essay “Dirty Silence,” her teacher Bill Manhire wrote that “poetry should embrace and welcome the great impure worlds of language and experience from which it makes itself” and that poems should be “sociable and surprising in their behavior.” Collage, conversation, code-switching, and multilingualism don’t belong to these islands alone, of course. Nevertheless, contemporary poems in New Zealand most seem akin to one another when they refuse to speak clearly or stand still.
Several times since I arrived in New Zealand, people have characterized my manner as refreshing and open. Leaving aside my obscure alarm at the word “refreshing”—am I reminding people of American soft drinks?—I think a lot about what that comment means, especially since at home, on the east coast of the U.S., I’m told I seem reserved. Because the Kiwis I talk to are mainly poets, references to conversational style often lead to a discussion of American poetry versus poetry in New Zealand, sometimes with Australia or England thrown in as a third term.
Although these writers learned a British canon at school (if they were taught much poetry at all), they read a fair amount of American verse. It’s not the same selection you’d see on a U.S. shelf. Robert Creeley, who spent a fair amount of time in New Zealand, is important; poets identified with the Language School visited and influenced the Auckland scene; several women poets say that the daring verse of Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds holds great power for them. American music reverberates in local writing. In Anna Jackson’s American Poetry and Poetics course at Victoria, a wavy line connects Ezra Pound to Elizabeth Bishop to Anne Carson. There are threads between those three, but one link is their expatriatism and ambivalence about national identity. I don’t know many U.S. poets and scholars who read Pacific verse as widely and thoughtfully, but when they do, it’s often in the context of postcolonial studies. I also see strong mutual interest between some indigenous American and Maori and Pacific writers, though getting the books across the water can be a challenge.
Since Bill Manhire has written about nearly every issue that interests me in New Zealand poetry, here’s an excerpt from his take on the relevance of U.S. poets to New Zealand writing, from the 1987 essay “Breaking the Line”: “I want to mention one other aspect of Whitman’s poetry which I find important – and this is the way in which he offers what he writes as a conversation with the reader… This idea of the poem as conversation, as intimate address from writer to reader, has been very important in American poetry. I think you can see signs of it in the work of several New Zealand writers since the 1960s.” The rest of the essay is well-worth reading; it gives a useful account, for example, of the particular anthologies of American verse that reached these islands in the 60s and 70s. His comment about conversation, though, particularly interests me because it’s a key term in how I’ve come to define community. A sense of belonging is a side-effect of frequent, substantive talk among a group of people, often via multiple media. Talk might not always result in a “we-feeling,” but it’s probably a prerequisite.
The problem with thinking about poetry as conversation is that it’s generally one-sided, not responsive to talk-back. Yes, living poets exchange drafts and those verses exhibit cross-influence. Page poets revise for their editors and performance poets adjust their set-lists for live audiences. I’m guessing that writers just as often get a charge of connection, though, from the solitary reading of printed text by authors long dead. Whitman, eerily, addresses future readers, reversing the usual flow, and perhaps Manhire is correct that this is an American way of writing. The talkiness of some contemporary U.S. verse owes a debt to Whitman. There’s a surreal, jumpy, elliptic mode that’s popular too, though. And a stream of sound-driven poetry that captures my ear.
While I worry this over, I notice that I sound increasingly strange to myself, my vowels and r’s oddly exaggerated. Not bubbly and corn-syrup sweet, though, and I haven’t yet confessed any family traumas on syndicated talk shows or reality TV. Why are my poem-drafts developing that self-correcting tic that started with Bishop (say it!)? Who do I think I’m talking to?
The farm’s still there. Mortgage corporations
Couldn’t give it away.
And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies say.
Bill Manhire and Harry Ricketts characterize Denis Glover’s 1941 ballad “The Magpies,” quoted above, as the best-known poem of New Zealand. Glover briefly tells a story of “Tom and Elizabeth” and their failed farm; the second half of each stanza consists of that peculiar refrain in magpie-language, nonsense words “said” rather than sung. Manhire attributes “doggedness” and “reticence” to the “stubborn, impure music” of the magpies, qualities he discovers throughout New Zealand verse. Ricketts also reads this recitation classic within a larger tradition, linking it to the traditional ballad “The Twa Corbies.” Glover’s rural matter-of-factness, the way he juxtaposes human catastrophe with nature’s persistence, makes me think of Robert Frost’s phoebes in “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things”—my poetic reference points are relentlessly American—but Glover and Frost are both talking back to those Romantic skylarks and nightingales and a flock of other bird-bard correlations. Since I’m concerned in this blog with contemporary poetic conversations, though, here’s a quick look at two twenty-first century counterpoints to Glover: Mary Cresswell’s “Travel Notes (Island Bay)” from Millionaire’s Shortbread (2003) and Robert Sullivan’s “Took: A Preface to ‘The Magpies’” from Shout Ha! to the Sky (2010).
Cresswell’s answer to the magpies’ nonsense-language is a surface translation of the original’s first verse: “the magpies said,” for example, becomes “thème à gout pays s’assiède.” A mock-pedantic editorial note informs us of the poem’s provenance: this is a “schoolyard rhyme, recalled by Miss Maire McKay of Island Bay, aged eighty, who was taught it by a nun from the Home of Compassion. Miss McKay’s whole generation knew and loved this rhyme,” a “charming ephemeron” now forgotten. (Note the internal rhyme even in the prose note: Cresswell, who emigrated from southern California to New Zealand in 1970, writes highly sound-driven verse, often rhymed and metered.) Literally, she says, the French words refer to “the discomfort of sitting on a poacher’s pruning saw.”
“Travel Notes (Island Bay)” is a puzzle—to solve it you must be familiar with “The Magpies” and have a very good ear (unless, maybe, the poet emails you to let you in on the joke). It’s an expression of delight in sound for its own sake. It’s also a challenge to the masculine lineage of Important Poets that Glover refers back to and generates. Cresswell admires Glover’s poem enough to poach it, but she never mentions him. Her work, unlike the settler labor of Tom and Elizabeth, is schoolyard play. Poetry comes to her through a line of unmarried women. They are Unimportant but they remember how things really happened.
Sullivan, a poet with Maori and Irish ancestors, identifies “The Magpies” as a poem of settler culture immediately, through the title of his response. “Took: A Preface to ‘The Magpies”” appeared in Sullivan’s 2006 essay for Landfall about the dominance of Pakeha and male writers in anthologies of New Zealand verse. His essay plays through the possible meanings of “took” in Glover’s first line, “When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm,” and his poem picks up that issue too by beginning with a bad treaty and displacement. The magpies themselves, Sullivan observes, are a species introduced to Aotearoa by Europeans via Australia; as nest-raiders who harry native birds and threaten their populations, they become ready emblems of colonial dominance and destruction. He rhymes the magpies, “pecking and squawking, frazzled and screwy,” with the native “tui”: both species are excellent mimics whose voices define these islands’ soundscapes. Sullivan ends by translating the tui’s wardle-doodle into Maori: “Do you mean korero, uri, arero, wairua, ruruhau perhaps sir?” Talk, descendants, tongue, spirit, shelter. Take that, Mr. Glover sir.
In his essay, Sullivan writes, “I happily admit that I ‘took’ great pleasure in the task” of writing a preface to Glover’s famous verses. Both he and Cresswell genuinely honor Glover’s resonant poem even as they fault its premises, or at least, I feel both impulses in their response-poems.
Cresswell’s strategy illuminates how Glover is also making a surface translation by converting the magpies’ sounds into human syllables; there is talk out there we can’t fully understand. I have read that the song of the tui contains passages of seeming silence because part of its range is beyond human hearing. I know I often return to a poem I read or even taught years ago and discover a whole new music in it, and sometimes I’m embarrassed at my failure to hear it sooner. This is why even the cleverest readers and writers need conversation, within and beyond poems themselves. Good mimics and critics amplify notes I hadn’t heard before and that’s a great pleasure too, even if I can never catch the whole melody, much less translate it into my own tongue.
I asked Robert Sullivan at a recent reading about the role of history in his poems. He replied, “I’m making a genre argument that historians are, like poets, imaginative writers; that poetry is also well equipped for these conversations; and that the historical can also be personal.” (I suspect those semicolons are all mine, but I’ll save my comments on orality for another day.) I admire his point—accounts of the past are never neutral and there’s no reason they need to be prose. The “poem containing history,” though (Ezra Pound’s phrase), is usually epic or long poetry. The brevity of lyric requires different modes of argument. Even in a lyric sequence with narrative elements, any tale is full of skips, blanks, recursions; metaphor and music have their own logic and can’t always accommodate names, dates, and other factual details.
So how can a lyric poem contain history? When in “Indian Cartography” Deborah Miranda remaps California, she embeds a narrative of colonization in her list of place names: “Tuolomne, / Salinas, Los Angeles, Paso Robles, / Ventura, Santa Barbara, Saticoy, / Tehachapi.” The displacement suffered by her family is the very ground of the poem, the landscape she assumes, and her poem constitutes an imaginative return to those waters, that earth. Words themselves, their textures and etymologies, widen a poem’s field. That’s also true in “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara, with its train times and brand names. The speaker grabs “an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets / in Ghana are doing these days” and suddenly race is in the poem, many lines before Billie Holiday sings. Think even of Emily Dickinson’s “Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man –.” The first word sends you in one direction, chasing after the agoraphobic belle of Amherst, but this is a politically astute New Englander writing in the middle of the nineteenth century. After images of auctions and whiteness, she concludes her four quatrains with the ringing imperative: “reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price –.” Of course she’s thinking about abolition. It’s tricky; I say she’s condemning slavery but you could also accuse her of using that vast, terrible trauma as a metaphor for her own situation. That’s one risk of opening a newspaper inside your stanzas. Your poem can gain power, or the world can shrink absurdly.
There are stories inside words themselves, but collage and direct quotation are also important strategies; visual elements such as typefaces, margins, and gaps can signal temporal and spatial shifts; titles, dedications, and notes can carry some of the burden of context. Within the lines, verb tenses and pronouns also involve highly-charged decisions. The poet is always in the poem somewhere, but how far inside the frame does she stand? In one of Robert Sullivan’s sequences about Captain Cook, “For the Ocean of Kiwa” in the book Voice Carried My Family, he represents the Polynesian members of Cook’s various crews, beginning well inside the frame. Addressing one of those men, Mai, Sullivan protests, “I just can’t take the middle of your throat. / Who would I pay for the privilege?” (28). Nevertheless, he keeps stepping back, out of the picture. That anxious “I” appears only once in the following poem, and by the next, the first person pronouns belong to those Polynesian crew members, speaking in the present tense.
When fictionalizing a real person’s voice in a poem, I think it’s best to acknowledge the transgression as Sullivan does. However, when I brought up that issue on Wom-po, The Discussion of Women’s Poetry List, a couple of writers, Eve Rifkah and Pat Valdata, explained why they disagreed. Valdata wrote, “if you have no personal connection to the people involved then it seems self-serving to make the poem about your own life and your own issues” (Fri, 18 Mar 2011 16:40:26). Many problems unfold from our contrasting views: what stories does a person own? Are there tales a privileged European-American like me should never presume to tell? Is there an extra burden on poetry as a genre (as opposed to, say, historical fiction)—is it inevitably personal? And anyone writing history as lyric has to decide what her goals are, what kind of experience she wants her readers and listeners to have. A poem engaging the past can provoke, evoke, give answers, or leave disturbing questions hanging in the silence.
Addressing history in a poem is one way of constructing a community. The affiliation is through time rather than, or as well as, across space. Some might say that cross-temporal community can’t exist because one side of the conversation is always already over. I talk to dead poets all the time, though, and their poems are complex enough to present new answers. And I recently heard a similar point made by digital archivists who are trying to change the ownership of history by making original documents available online—letters, maps, early printed texts, often in nineteenth-century Maori. One of them said at the end of his presentation, almost as an aside, that he often felt guided by the tupuna; his ancestors collaborate in the project. Some documents pop up just as you need them; others hide, or the computer breaks down. “You know they want you to tell the story,” he said, smiling, “because they allow you to.”
Is there a word for this? I visualize a pale field crisscrossed by radiating lines, each representing some affiliation or influence. This web is speckled with nodes or tangled places where a great many lines converge, and of course the pattern isn’t fixed. Some nodes keep darkening, gathering power, pulling more threads through their hubs. Is that what I’m thinking of, those maps in airline magazines, full of red curves that indicate routes? In any case, the nodes in my imaginary model are people, and the busiest ones are the network-builders: editors, teachers, organizers of reading series, and also the less obviously powerful people who just persistently stay in conversation with other writers and readers.
That’s a variation on the familiar web/weaving/net metaphor, and it has become a cliché because it really is a helpful way to imagine the bonds in a social group. The tighter and denser the connections, the stronger the fabric. Images of mixture are another option: the melting pot or alloy versus the salad, quilt, choir, family, or sedimentary rock. The latter seem better figures for community because they preserve a sense of the individuals who comprise the whole. However, I was just reading an unpublished article by Victoria University scholar Heidi Thomson about Keats’ letters—how he seeks to create co-presence through his writing, an intimacy that can seem intensely physical even though it’s made of words. She highlights his portmanteau word “interassimulate.” The word suggests that as friends interact, they assimilate and simulate. Sympathies, interests, values converge.
On Monday I attended a lecture and a reading by Robert Sullivan. He discussed the figure that obsesses him: spirals in three dimensions, “two points connected in a curvilinear fashion.” He pointed out the ubiquity of spirals in far-flung artistic traditions, though Maori and Celtic versions are particularly important to him, and noted that the curves seem closer if you look down on the spiral from above. His poetry circles back spirally through the literary past and the history of his ancestors, demonstrating community with his family and teachers through time. Like my web-that-I-can’t-name-in-a-word, the spiral, too, keeps moving.
I’m puzzling over metaphors because I’m puzzling over structures. Arguments are linear, but writing about a community for an essay or book chapter, I want a way of organizing my thoughts that simulates the complicated interdependence of the elements in my case study. I don’t want to focus narrowly on one poet, or a pair of them, because communities contain multiple nodes. I could describe the network from multiple angles, but where do the actual poems come in? Communities aren’t of literary interest unless they germinate poems people want to read and hear, but individual pieces rarely encapsulate what a community is about and it can be hard to see the very fine silks of connection between them. Can an essay resemble a net or a spiral and still be a clear and useful bit of teaching/reporting/talking?
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