2. “I dwell in Possibility”
I’m most likely to feel animosity toward poetry when I’ve just spent some time with the New Yorker or a finalist for some national prize, and maybe envy is part of the equation, but not when I don’t have an eligible book (and, I admit) I never send poems to the New Yorker. My hackles generally rise when I feel that the work in question is too inconsequential or cryptic, when the language or ideas seem flippant or the mischief isn’t serious. Flannery O’Connor said that, due to time constraints (mortality, in her case), she couldn’t read everything that came before her, and her guiding principle was that she stopped reading when she felt she could do so without experiencing a sense of loss. That test seems to me legitimate and fair, and I employ it in all my reading but student work. Consequently, I see a lot more heads of poems than tails.
Maybe I’m also employing the ideas in Moore’s shorter version of “Poetry,” but I don’t think in terms of “perfect contempt,” and “genuine” seems too contested a category. I keep going back to that earlier version with its imaginary gardens and real toads, partly because the metaphor does more for me than the position paper language of the later poem, and in such a compact package the shift from “I” to “one” suggests a kind of bloodless and unenthusiastic stance. This, by the way, doesn’t mean that I don’t see how the two versions work as a pair in dialogue.
Frost said that, if it is a wild thing, it is a poem, and Williams wrote that poems are machines made of words. When I apply these criteria as equally valuable for assessing a poem, my mind opens up, and I can read with some delight. The machinery has more to do with craft, reason, convention, coherence, hospitality, while the wildness refers to the forces of resistance to these. Left brain and right, lattice and honeysuckle vine, poets who rely on the dynamic between the two make me feel invited back into the long conversation of poetry, with all its passionate understanding, formal accomplishment and serious mischief.
One of the mysteries of Lerner’s book (along with the aforementioned disclaimer near the end — see my first post on this subject) is his willingness to blame the unpopularity of poetry on a few species of poems (the mediocre poems written for inaugurations, slamfest poems which on the page look trite or melodramatic) which are doomed to fall short once removed from the very specific audience and context of their immediate purpose. And he attributes it, as well, to the “more than three hundred thousand websites devoted to poetry.” He also has a go (via Mark Edmundson) at Baraka’s World Trade Center poem, but this does lead him to an important discovery, which would have made a great place to begin this book: “the haters should stop pretending any poem ever successfully spoke for everyone.” If he had admitted this before he started writing the book, he could have saved himself and his readers plenty of slogging through slanted discussions of Plato, McGonagall’s bridge disaster, Caedmon’s epiphany. This is the heart of the matter with poetry, as with omelets, pets, wedding dresses, vanity license tags and even translations of sacred texts: there are no poems that satisfy all readers, as we bring overlapping but still unique natures to the reading of them. There’s no one “audience” for poetry but “audiences.” I’ll admit that I’m not so certain that there aren’t poems which are universally disdained, but even McGonagall’s travesty probably doesn’t qualify. The buffet nature of the canon is its saving grace.
If you have an axe to grind – whether because poetry seems too much like something made by mankind and not divine in origin, or because your beliefs about craft, gravity, levity, concreteness, figurative language, thrift, tonal modulation, erudition, vernacular and so on are not dominant in the broader poetry community (or, God help us, po-biz), I can say only “take heart.” Despite his convictions about the inadequacies of poetry, Lerner seems to find poems which offer him significant satisfactions. And so do I, when I search vigilantly. I, too, dwell in possibility, if only because if you put 100 poets to work at 100 type writers for 100 years, something beautiful and new and supple, consequential and witty without being cute is sure to surface. Even from 100 graduate workshops. I can sustain my winged hope enough to accept the challenge and take up my pencil when something I see or think sparks up a phrase and the faint tones of a distant music (not “unheard,” but elusive, partial, beckoning) touch my imagination. I take out my axe and knife, gouge, mallets, awl, chisels, rasp and begin to carve words from the silence, and the work, which can be Sisyphean, can also be rewarding. (After all, Camus says one may imagine Sisyphus happy.) True, my relationship with poetry, as reader and writer, resembles Twain’s position on smoking: easiest thing in the world to give it up, I’ve done it thousands of times. And I, too, dislike it, but it refines my engagement with the world and my own many selves. A good enough reason to get up most mornings. As for the divine messenger, I keep an extra coffee cup in the cupboard, and an extra whisky tumbler, as well, but I’m not holding my breath.