Okay, face it: the academic year is about to begin. This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no fooling around. Put away the sunscreen, dump all those plans you had for the Summer of Continuous Industry and Focus out back with the compost. For many of us reading this blog, the creative writing workshop is heading straight at us, whether we’ll be teaching or taking one. So I can think of no more appropriate poem to post today than this beauty by Rodney Jones, the tongue-in-cheek raconteur I am always eager to read, because just as you start to think you’re having way too much fun to be reading a serious poem, he plunges into the depths of something. “The Ante” first appeared in New Ohio Review 10, Fall 2011.
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A few sonnets about nature and the Greek gods.
Many free-verse poems in all lowercase letters.
Huey wrote of madness, Maddox of possums.
John played the sadness of empty stadiums.
Two berets, one silver-tipped cane, tweedy blazers.
In most Natalie poems, she took off her clothes.
The year of the Tet offensive. Wallace in Montgomery.
We read James Wright, Richard Wilbur, Anne Sexton.
One Friday an ex-guidance counselor from Jasper
leapt through the window of a cafeteria, shouting
“I am the son of Jesus Christ! Behold the rapture!”
But nothing much happened in Poetry Writing 301
until Walter C. Avery wrote that a black swan,
born in the infralapsarian brain of a garbage dump,
would crack the codes of the Southern Baptists.
And for this jack-surreal, mildly apocalyptic truffle
was taken for near genius material, practically
a second Edgar Allan Poe, until Sam Maisel
submitted his “Poem for The Worksheet Typist,”
which made everyone consider how scandalous
it must have seemed for her, a local woman,
a seamstress, and mother of Christian athletes,
to run across “I know you think you’ve seen it all before,
but this is duck rape, feathered love.” And some
in the critique afterward, praised the line-endings;
one person even mentioned “The Second Coming,”
which, admittedly, made me blanch with envy,
so I had wanted to say something about how
sometimes the subject is not what you think
or the ones you imagine you are talking about
stand abruptly and begin to talk back to you,
but spring was bearing down on the workshop,
ripping out pages, grinding the opinions to nubs.
So much energy in the streets—demonstrations,
happenings, awakenings—so many instances
of sudden and involuntary enlightenment,
though mostly my friends and I spent our nights
on Sixth Street drinking beer at The Chukkar
or crouched in a huddle around a record player.
By the time I thought of Sam’s duck again,
May had slipped into June and June into July,
and what is poetry in a copper tubing factory?
A cloud would fan out around the tubes
as the crane lifted them from the soaping vats
after they had softened in the furnace.
My job was to crimp a point on each of them.
Then the next man would carefully run them
through a die. Down the line I could see
the process repeating: the furnace, the point,
the die—the tubes and men diminishing.
All night the saws screeched and whined.
The pointers clattered. The press roared.
That was the beauty of it. You could sing.
No one would hear. You could say anything.
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Some forty-five years later, the workshop Jones describes sounds very familiar, though I don’t see many berets these days. The idea of poetry, “the beauty of it,” and I think Whitman would agree, is supposed to be our liberation from the phrase “supposed to be.” You’re supposed to be freed of all those rules – social, idiomatic, topical – enough to say what you need to say. Yet if we’re not careful the creative writing workshop becomes like any organized group of people, fraught with sidelong looks, with political and aesthetic pressures. Is he allowed to say that? Can she get away with that metaphor? Self-consciousness naturally interferes with pure expression, and writers can be pigeonholed even if only one or two of their poems memorably mentioned possums or nakedness. Well, what is poetry in a copper tubing factory? For the speaker in this poem, at this moment, perhaps it’s a relief to be away from people grouped about a table civilizing, judging, taming each other and imposing their views on what’s important to him. We write in order to be read, sure. But also, and maybe foremost, to sound our barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
Rodney Jones has published nine books of poetry, the most recent being Imaginary Logic, which appeared last fall from Houghton Mifflin. He has been the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Harper Lee Award, and the Kingsley-Tufts Award. He is a professor of English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed -- thanks for the opportunity, David! -- presenting these poems from New Ohio Review all summer long, and I hope you’ll seek out the other good poems we publish. Meet you up on the roof.