Mike comes into my tiny office and holds up a new anthology of contemporary poetry. "We'll never be in a book like this," he says with a resolved sadness. We are both in our 30s and have published two chapbooks each and many poems in literary magazines. Mike has even won a few small prizes in poetry contests. But as he himself says, in spite of our small successes, we are very faint lights in the galaxy of poets. "You couldn't find us with a radio telescope.”
I'm not thinking much about the galaxy of poets. I’m teaching high school students writing and simply trying to stay warm. It’s the winter semester and very cold for a Southern boy. As I cross country ski that afternoon I think about what my friend Mike’s said and remember some Yeats, “There are too many of us," he’d said as he gazed around the Rhymers Club eighty years before.
How poems survive, and how poets survive to write them, are questions that will not leave me as I traverse the snowy landscape of my early thirties in Northern Michigan.
I know that Emily Dickenson was a great poet of her age, and ages to come. Yeats must not have been referring to himself, bound as he was surely was to be, as Ezra Pound would say, "the best poet writing in English.” But looking contemporary poems (or poets) in the face, how can we tell who or great-grandchildren will be reading, or if they will even be reading at all? I know whether I appear as a momentary sighting in an anthology, or flame into super novas, like Yeats and Dickenson, is the public business of poetry and I have little to do with it.
I also know that the public business of poets begins when I face my desk or notebook each morning. This is the first (and maybe hardest) step toward immortality, toward super nova. Back then when the poems, "feelings into words" as Seamus Heaney calls them, finally crawled out into the light of language, I revised and keep them around like old friends for months or years, adding light to light. Then I stuffed typed pages in threes, fours or fives into white envelopes, added an SASE, mailed them to small and large magazines all over the country. I had some success, but how much success is enough to secure survival?
Sometimes Mike is so discouraged he says he is ready to give up on this poetry life. He is not the most patient of men. “Poetry publishing is irrational," he says.
“A poet should find great comfort in irrationality in any form,” I say as we walk along the snowy lake front. “We poets are so irrational that Plato threw us out of his Republic.”
I’ve heard this complaint before. Every friend of mine who writes crazy, irrational poems wants them published eventually in rationally designed and distributed books.
Already, in 1987, I am struggling to find the balance between the public and private selves of a poet. The same poet who makes wonderfully irrational poems also wants them enfolded into the system. But I know (even then) poems are not "products" ready to go to the "market place."
I know the private pleasure of poetry is how it travels from spirit to soul, soul to spirit. When poetry's pleasure is really clicking it's spoken to large and small crowds, borrowed, printed on postcards and mailed around. It is photocopied from library books, and taped up on refrigerators, sent through inter-office envelopes.
I’ve read Lewis Hyde’s in The Gift, his popular study of gifts and gift giving, and I know how Hyde believes that art exists entirely outside the rational world of commerce. Most of our powerful encounters with art come not from an exchange of "goods and services" but from a "gift exchange." Something very small (the poem) can be given, and something very large (the experience when we read or hear poetry) can be received. The poems that survive are the ones that are larger than the commerce of themselves. Big images and sounds make poems survive. Big metaphor. Big symbolic language, like Yeats' "The Second Coming."
I know (already back then) that poems (and poets) are more than surfaces, more than clanging vocal chords, or ink crushed into wood fiber and circulated by publishers. They are also more than the events that flare for the moment and vanish. Poems are more than space-time, and somehow end up, if they are important to people, surviving longer than the flesh and blood that produced them. Keats, a failed medical student, died at 26; his poems are now 150.
E.M. Forster said, "Romance is a matter of chance collisions," and those collisions call us to courage, and a willingness to take risks. Poetry speaks of unprecedented action, of as Forester adds, "overcoming our scripts and losses." So poetry is, in the end, written, distributed, and received romantically.
I learn about cold in Northern Michigan. I learn the language of snow and ice. I learn that the private pleasure of the poet is the work of overcoming our scripts and losses. We write, not to publish, but to set things right inside.