Many thanks again to Stacey Harwood and the Best American Poetry Blog for having me as a guest this past week. It’s been really exciting and wonderful for me to have this occasion to muse about poetry and related subjects, and to have this community to muse it to. There were so many things I wanted to write about and couldn't possibly have gotten around to in the days and space of a week’s blogging, so rather than try to cram in one more, I thought I’d just propose a few of the questions and notions I’ve been kicking around, that others might kick them around with me, here or elsewhere in the world. I like lists, so…
Some Things I Wonder About When I Wonder About Poetry
- Derrida talks about “the proxy of the sign” and Heidigger talks about the way language “calls” something absent into presence, but by needing the word in the first place, language reinscribes the absence. What is the relationship of language to absence? Better yet, what is the relationship of language to presence? What are the consolations of language?
- Something about language as an organ of perception. How the word “rosemary” tastes different than the words “blue paint”. How the word “soberly” weighs something different in the palm of the mind than the word “whim”.
- Something about attention. Every time we sat next to each other that week, we couldn’t even listen to the readers, we were both so busy attending to every moment our knees or fingers or shoulders didn’t touch.
- When we use the term “sentimental” as a form of derision, what is it exactly that we’re accusing a poem (or poet) of? Is it the overly familiar? The cliché, the kitch? Is it the overly candid, the naïve emotional outpouring? What’s the opposite of sentimentality, then? Is it restraint? That seems such a hard word, so correctional. So antithetical to Blake’s “exuberance is beauty.” Is it silence?
- Speaking of Blake, I love a good aphorism. Jim Richardson writes splendid aphorisms, like “All stones are broken stones.” Like “Who breaks the thread? The one who pulls, or the one who holds on?”
- To all of the teachers who feel I never learned anything from them: Take my word for it, it’s all in there. I keep relearning how much you taught me each time my life changes and I find I need this or that insight you imparted; each time I suddenly understand something I otherwise just remembered. So if it doesn’t show, it’s just because it isn’t time yet.
- Given the choice between a black cocktail dress and a good pair of jeans, I will choose the black cocktail dress every time.
- And yet I own five pairs of jeans.
- If you're having trouble writing, it’s probably because you’re having trouble accessing sensation, or possibly because something in your soul is a little off-kilter, or maybe for some reason you don’t feel safe. All of these problems, I find, can be solved by cooking something delicious and moderately elaborate, and then sharing it with somebody. Tortilla soup, let’s say. You know while you’re making it whether it’s any good, the immediate gratification requires almost no thinking, and when you’re done, it is as gone as if it had never been thought of – all things one sometimes wishes was true of a poem. And you can put lime in a poem by writing “lime”. But you put lime in tortilla soup by rolling the green sphere between a wooden cutting board and the heel of your palm, slicing it with a small, sharp knife, and squirting it into the broth. That’s good stuff, that is.
- I need to read more poetry written by contemporary mid-career poets writing in other countries, cultures and languages right now. Not thirty years ago, now. (Octavio Paz is fine, but surely there is someone since him to put into the anthologies?) In the fall of 2008, the Nobel Prize in Literature judging panel’s permanent secretary Horace Engdahl criticized the American literary community, stating that "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” I think that guy’s a little bit of an unreconstructed European cultural imperialist, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. There’s a lot going on in other poetries that we can learn from. Junot Diaz once asked, at a poetry festival I attended in Cartegena, Colombia, “Que falta nuestra literatura?” What’s missing from our literature? We’ve got a lot of literature, though, so the idea of adding other literatures to my ever-lengthening reading list is, I confess, kind of daunting.
- Frank O’Hara is probably definitely my favorite poet. And I love Coleridge. And both of them wrote a whole lot of poems, and not all of them are equally terrific, which gives me hope.
- It unnerves me when, say, Horace the electrical engineer in seat 11B asks me what “kind” of poetry I write. Because I have no idea what kind of poetry I write. I write the kind that culminates, on good days, in poems.
- I also never know what to say when Betty, doing my nails, asks me what I write “about”. It’s just dizzying because, see, I’m kind of a maximalist. I write about everything I can.
- It would seem the best solution would be to not tell anybody I am a teacher (of what?) writing (what kind?) or not to say yes when they ask “so you must write, too?” but instead to tell them I’m unemployed, on the dole, ain’t got no job, just floating on by trying to find that Big Rock Candy Mountain. But I am too chicken to lie.
Should you happen to be in Texas, you should really consider going to the reading and benefit to support beloved poet and colleague Dean Young, who faces a heart transplant and the astronomical medical expenses that could be, even after insurance coverage, absolutely crippling. There will be some great readers, including Robert Hass, Mary Ruefle, Tomaz Salamun and my young friend Malachi Black. There will be opportunities to make donations of whatever size you feel comfortable, but admission to the gathering is free. The event will be held at the Austin Museum of Art on Friday, April 8 from 6pm.
For those who cannot make the event but would be interested in learning more and in making a small donation, please visit www.transplants.org.