I don’t think a poem can be true. I also recognize that when a writer works through something risky and important to her in a poem–when the stakes feel personal and significant, and language is used craftily to convey that cost–the end result is a more powerful poem.
That paradox is at the heart of a seminar I’m teaching now on mid-century U.S. poetry (starting with Olsen and Ginsberg and going up to spoken word in the 80s). I’m pressed for time in this busy September, but I thought I’d put down a few ideas here with the hope of coming back to them, as the students in my class will, reading a variety of poets and critics from those decades.
In conjunction with Ginsberg’s immensely powerful, high-stakes early poems, we just read the 1966 essay “Sincerity and Poetry,” in which Donald Davie tries, with obvious chagrin, to come to terms with a big turn in poetic priorities, apparently away from skill and towards something like authenticity, truth, or prophecy. “Among the hoary fallacies which the new confessional poetry has brought to life among us,” he argues with an audible wince, “is the notion that we know sincerity by its dishevelment: that to be elegant is to be insincere.” He concedes that Beat and Confessional poetry challenge the very grounds of New Criticism, then the dominant approach in literature classrooms and literary scholarship; ambiguity, irony, and self-enclosed symmetry can no longer be the terms of value. He suggests, however–because we can’t simply ask a poet “hey, did you mean it?” and take his word for it–that we must find sincerity somehow within the poem and measure it by the artist’s control: “We must learn, I daresay, to give more weight to other features, notably to the tone in which the speaker addresses us, and to the fall and pause and run of spoken American or spoken English as the poet plays it off against his stanza-breaks and line-division. In short a poet can control his poem in many more ways, or his control of it manifests in more ways, than until lately we were aware of. Nevertheless we were right all along to think a poem is valuable according as the poet has control over it; now we must learn to call that control ‘sincerity.'”
My students found Ginsberg’s art sincere by Davie’s terms (Ginsberg’s portrays an out-of-control world in his lines, but does so with exquisite skill) but also despite Davie’s terms, because control isn’t exactly the feature that manifests a real person behind “Howl” or “Sunflower Sutra” or “Mugging.” In a strong poem read with attention, there’s a sense of presence exceeding the words–a secondary experience that comes from someone once representing some triggering experience in a highly artificial medium.
So is all news, all poetry, fake to some degree? Sure. It’s not the experience it represents, but a selected, shaped version of it. Is what’s important, then, the reporter-poet’s intent to get things right, as far as a brief snippet of language allows, vs. an intent to deceive? Hmm. Poet-Thing’s going to make more tea and keep thinking about it.
Last week, as another birthday hurried past, I taught Frank O’Hara! It was the first time ever I chucked the Selected Poems at my students instead of relying on anthology standards! Many of the poems I assigned were the WRONG ONES but it was still exciting—the papaya juice, George Washington in his tight white pants, unpunctuated rushes climaxing in exclamation points! My undergrads were delighted, pissed off, and puzzled in aesthetically pleasing proportions.
We also read an essay by Wayne Koestenbaum, who is visiting later this term for our Shannon-Clark series of scholarly lectures. “‘Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!’: Frank O’Hara’s Excitement” starts, as many works of literary criticism do, by getting personal, and proceeds rapidly through a range of great insights about poetic structure, allusion, tone, and the minutiae that add up to style. One passage in particular has been resonating in me:
“Excitement comes from being lazy and fun loving. O’Hara worked hard, but he also took it easy. His Collected Poems are a manifesto of the high aesthetic rewards that accrue from a life—albeit a tragically abbreviated life—of taking easiness as the gold standard. Like Warhol’s professed love of easy art (or art that was easy to make), O’Hara’s love of easeful production stood in ironic contrast to the uneasy intensity that electrifies his work and complicates its every emotional posture, threading melancholy and ambivalence and the threat of self-loss into the most apparently insouciant exclamations.”
In class, a surprising remark issued from my mouth: I said something about finding that paragraph provocative, given that our culture has virtually adopted busy-ness as a religion. Now, I’m normally pretty skeptical of phrases such as “our culture.” Who is included and excluded from the “our”? Yes, there’s a lot of media coverage on ever-expanding workweeks and the now-standard response of “Busy!” to the old-standard question, “How are you?” I’ve seen plenty of social-media vows not to talk about being busy anymore; I’ve even issued one myself (and broken it repeatedly). I’m not sure it’s a new phenomenon, though. Hard work has been core to the U.S. national myth for a long time. Think of Melville’s busy lawyer facing down Bartleby: clearly you can be smug about your own industry whether or not you wield a cell-phone.
It’s probably truer to quote Ginsberg’s “America”: “I am talking to myself again.” While I’ve been trying to construct a relationship towards work my whole life, the problem seems more acute now in the second half of my forties. For seventeen-plus years kids have been a helpful counterbalance to ambition, reminding me that from a certain highly valid perspective, my urgent deadlines are meaningless. I accomplished a lot in those decades, and did a ton of kid-cleaning-up-after and school-project-advising too, but there were inevitably big chunks of just hanging out. We tossed pebbles into streams, read chapter books aloud for the fifth time, made birthday cakes in honor of cats who would never deign to sniff them, consumed seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, walked toddlers around the mall until one or the other of us finally collapsed like Lana Turner.
My daughter just handed me a sweet handmade card, though, in which she pointed out that if her college applications go well, this may be the last September ever in which she’s present to celebrate my birthday. (I hugged her and she said, “See, even your birthday is all about me.” Funny kid. Works too hard.) My son is younger so I’m not exactly dangling over a precipice, not yet. Still, there’s less and less standing between me and potentially WORKING ALL THE TIME.
I’m more like that stupid lawyer than I am like Bartleby. Work satisfies me, as long as I get pleasant breathers. And while I don’t know about Frank O’Hara’s writing process, his brand of poetic ease is shockingly difficult to pull off. Good poems only flow readily when you put in a lot of hours reading, writing, talking, and thinking about art, and often not even then. Striving is not the enemy. I just can’t stay clear of the anxiety maelstrom work tends to generate, much less keep it all easy and fun-loving.
I do know it’s impossible to predict which hours are going to matter. You have to write the bad poem before the good one, so walking down dead ends isn’t wasted time. Professional generosities sometimes seem like diversion from vocations—putting in a stint as a department head, writing reviews—and sometimes they are, in fact, almost meaningless exercises that subtract painfully from leisure. Other times a former student expresses gratitude for some kindness you’ve totally forgotten and you realize, well, it cost me forty-five minutes, but maybe that recommendation letter was, in fact, a more transformative literary production than any single poem I’ve ever written.
Koestenbaum also provokes me by asserting, “The point of a poem, or an essay, is to pose questions, not to answer them.” How often have I told a student to explain why his observation matters? Or railed against a grant application in my overlarge reading pile for not stating the significance of the research project? Poems, too—a lot of contemporary poetry is frustrating because the author hasn’t done the work of thinking through her fragmented inspirations. It’s not that she should hand me The Answer on an iambic platter. It’s just that if she doesn’t know what she means, the poem probably doesn’t either, and therefore a smart reader can’t puzzle it out. Jigsaws with lots of missing pieces rightly end up mulched.
Yet here I am, raising an unanswerable question about the right way to work. Asking questions is fun; devising even provisional answers is head-breaking. Maybe that’s the proper retort to the problem. If it’s not paying the bills or saving someone or intrinsically fun, should I ever do it?
And ah, here’s where I’m too much like O’Hara for my own good, and at the same time, much dumber about excitement’s necessary lassitudes. It’s ALL fun, isn’t it, from a certain angle? Poems and people and even devising the winter course schedule! But doesn’t Melville’s excitable lawyer strike you as a few ticks less intelligent than his enervated scrivener? It takes introspection and nerve to realize that even when it’s sequins and chocolate soda, sometimes you just prefer not to.
One way to tell the story of how I came to read poetry desperately and constantly would be: early. I still know by heart a book of nursery rhymes I used to own, with Richard Scarry illustrations. A lot of us, though, had our first serious poetry crushes in, or at least during, high school. At fifteen, while I was struck dumb by Keats in the classroom, I was also buying David Bowie albums, reading the liner notes, and hunting down the books he mentioned there. Hence William Burroughs—who was NOT on the curriculum at the Academy of the Holy Angels—and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which was a life-changer. Then Sister Ignatius commanded that I enter a poetry contest at Bergen County Community College, so I copied over my verses and, to my shock because I never won anything, took first prize. The professor-judge told me I’d clearly read a lot of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom I’d never heard of (maybe he’s the love-child of Keats and Ginsberg?), so I went home and read him, too. University was where this all gathered speed—taking modernism courses, meeting intense young writers who were also cute boys—but I’m not sure I ever needed poems as urgently I did in high school. Those were such isolated, unhappy years. Give me bad office politics, babies who wake at 5 a.m., even tax forms. It’s all better than being fifteen.
So I am all the more impressed by Beth Konkoski at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, Virginia. She’s the kind of teacher I needed but most of us never get. Yesterday, at her invitation, I drove nearly three hours, ran a workshop for 30 students, read to about 300 in a large auditorium, had lunch with members of her department, and drove three hours home again. She doesn’t run an event of this magnitude every year, but Beth is a poet who meets other writers, like me, at conferences, so she knows her way around po-biz. She is also dedicated and organized: Beth asked some weeks in advance for a few poems I planned to read, especially poems revising myths and fairy tales, and gave them to her students in advance with journal prompts. She is also experienced enough in managing teenagers to make it look like a magical power: who ever heard of 300 highschoolers sitting quietly and with the appearance of respectful attention for a 40 minute poetry reading by some middle-aged person? It also seems to me, from a quick visit, that her large, diverse public school must be unusually supportive of inspired teachers, because the logistics alone were staggering. So many permission slips…
My workshop involved litanies and list-poems, a similar scheme to the one I wrote up for The Exercise Book(which I revisited for ideas earlier this week and man, that really is a good collection). I wanted to frame the reading itself with poems by other writers, so I elicited a bunch of suggestions on Facebook. I then didn’t follow any of them except for Margo Solod’s general directive: “hit ‘em hard.” Which meant, I deduced, not corporal punishment but choosing the most powerful poems I could. I began with a terrific Tim Seibles piece and closed with Mary Oliver, because one of my first Washington and Lee students, Jeanne, said “Wild Geese” had empowered her to depart from the script and be who she needed to be. Of my own, I chose a poem about being a zombie, another about campus sexual assault, some about my mother’s childhood in Liverpool, and elegies. The dead pet poems triggered noisy tears from a young woman in the back start—I hope you’ll forgive me, Cellist Girl. A newish poem, “Vasovagal Syncope,” made another young woman run up afterwards: “I have that! I never thought I’d hear a poem about it!”
The questions amazed me most. You know how during the question period after a reading, all the college students will freeze and all the community members shift around uncomfortably? I had thought of pulling a Craig Santos Perez—he tosses cans of Spam to the first audience members who speak up—but I don’t have the throwing arm to reach the back rows, so I just braced myself for nervous silence. Instead, I couldn’t keep up with their raised hands. Okay, there was the sloucher in the first row performing disaffected sarcasm, but almost all of them were writer questions. What do you think about rhyme in contemporary poetry? How do you know when a poem’s done? What’s the most important idea you try to get across to your poetry students? What do you do when you’re staring at a blank page and nothing’s happening? How do you manage self-doubt? The one-on-one conversation afterward was just as urgent. One guy who called himself a “music nerd” asked, “So are there poet’s poets, the way there are obscure, unknown musicians that all the other musicians admire for their skills?” And there was the fiction writer who asked about writing a story in which people are telling a story. “Well, that’s called frame narration,” I began, and he said, “Yeah, but how do you DO it? Is it like, dot dot dot? Is there a way to start in third-person omniscient and then move to first-person?” Man, that kid is in the trenches.
Are there any questions more high-stakes than those, more serious? I liked those students so much for sticking their hands right up in that potentially intimidating space and asking what they needed to know. And I like their teachers so much for making room for this conversation in an era of frantic standardized testing and STEM-field obsession. The music nerds and future scientists need poems, too, and Beth is making sure they have access to them. It’s beautiful.
The one time I tried to smoke a cigarette, my friends mocked me: “Cut that out. You look totally ridiculous.” By common consensus, I couldn’t pull off foul language either. I thought the problem might have been some crisp Englishness lingering in my elocution—my mother’s British and allegedly I started kindergarten with an accent. I pondered further: despite U.S. stereotypes about English prissiness, I knew, they carry off expletives quite well in the British Isles, so that shouldn’t be it. Perhaps my tendency to ponder obscenities in polysyllabic latinate diction was somehow symptomatic of the same issue?
In any case, nobody mocks how I swear anymore, and I live with 12- and 15-year old children, so you’ll know that I am mocked about various shortcomings hourly. I’m told, for instance, that my sense of humor is totally immature, which may be why I still get a thrill when a poet suddenly veers towards crudeness. In slam, of course, the climactic curse is practically inscribed into the requirements of the form. See Taylor Mali’s “I Could Be a Poet” for that bit of critical analysis put into hilarious action. At least, I think the “fucking” in that poem is hilarious, but according to my daughter I’ll laugh at anything—it’s just embarrassing.
Usually profanity concerns sex or excrement, both of which are, of course, intrinsically funny. So-called bad language desecrates, too. While powerful poetry often (always?) engages notions of sacredness, if a poem’s good it’s never simply pious—instead, it knocks some god off a pedestal to set up another. Think about Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” or T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” or Deborah Miranda’s “Things My Mother Taught Me”: all of them get to sacredness via irreverence, anger, and resistance to romantic visions. For the Magi it’s liquor and refractory camels plaguing their journey to God. Miranda’s villanelle offers a mantra for holy ordinariness culminating in an unglamorous brand-name ingredient: “Four paths to payday: beans and rice, flour, Crisco.” Swearing isn’t required but it’s one way to shake up the over-serious regard that can kill a poem.
English teachers are supposed to say that swearing demonstrates a lamentably poor vocabulary. Sure, sometimes. It can also convey linguistic range and daring; turn up emotional intensity at a key moment; and it can hurt and demean people, too. I think the beginning of Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” is brutally perfect: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do.” While his “High Windows” also haunts me—scraps of it come back to me in all kinds of dismal situations—the obscenity in the beginning of that poem just drives home everything hateful about the author. I lose that crucial thread of connection to the mind behind the poem. I feel sworn at, violently, because I’m part of a major demographic (women) that filled Larkin with longing and distaste. More generally, I think people should be able to work and study without being sworn or leered at—although they’re just going to have to tolerate some profanity-laced poems on my syllabi, because they’re among the most resonant in recent literary history.
While swearing might win you points in a poetry slam, it can still be a liability in print venues (and in some live readings, too). The famous obscenity trial over “Howl” happened a long time ago but certain kinds of explicitness still generate wild discomfort. I once received a nice-note rejection from a very generous editor saying that the word “crotch” in one of my poems (“Lucky Thirteen”) was a deal-breaker. I meant it to be tricky and distasteful: it’s a poem about depression, for fuck’s sake. (Ha!) Still, experimentally, I revised it out. The poem was promptly accepted by another magazine in the next round of submissions. Some version of this happens to me a lot. Apparently I still can’t pull off the colorful verbiage.
Are they right, the editors and readers who resist the cringe? Risks are worth trying, but sometimes you can’t pull them off, or a phrase that was important for generating a poem doesn’t fit in the final version. I keep looking at a poem I first drafted a couple of years ago, working title “Douchebags,” trying to figure out if it’s the title/ blunt treatment of sexual material earning rejections or whether the poem just isn’t quite successful on other grounds. (Anyone who wants to read it and tell me, backchannel!) I can’t revise out the crudeness this time, though. The poem concerns my first sexual experience; this involved a guy who did me some lasting harm but who was also damaged and sad, and whom I did not treat honorably either. When I broke up with him, his lament was: “You douched me over, you douchebag!” At eighteen, I knew this was very funny, and also that I was being a condescending jerk by finding this very funny. He was hurting badly and that was all the language he had to express his emotion. Although he treated me awfully, at some level I had always possessed the power of just being smarter and knowing, deep in my douchebag heart, that I could and would do better.
And this probably gets back to why I’m attracted to foul-mouthed poems, especially when the profanity is mixed up with lyricism, wit, and erudition. I want to believe these worlds can coexist, if not harmonize—that their native speakers can talk to each other, across hurt and difference. Those languages coexist in me.
Happy Thanksgiving, and may your stuffing and sweet potatoes touch illicitly on the plate while brown rivulets of gravy dribble into the cranberry sauce.
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.