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Katha Pollitt

Complain, Complain: Poems about writing poetry [by Katha Pollitt]

Stevie Smith    Complain, Complain: Poems about Writing Poetry
    by Katha Pollitt (pictured below left, reading at KGB Bar)

Have you ever noticed how many modern poems there are in which the poet complains about the difficulty of writing poetry?  I suspect this is a relatively recent addition to the long list of poets’ complaints, perhaps replacing the traditional lament that the poet’s girlfriend won’t sleep with him. Now chances are she’ll do that, at least for a while.  Back in the day poets  wrote scads of poems about about how cold and heartless or just mysteriously uninterested the desired woman was, but at least the poem itself was not the problem.  Poets  were always comparing themselves to shepherds tootling on flutes or panpipes, which sounds restful and pleasant and not very musically challenging, or to madmen raving, birds warbling, or other images of spontaneous and untutored communication.  Perhaps it was easier when you had the Muse to do the heavy lifting.

Katha Pollitt at KGB 2017  I thought about this because of a dinner party I recently attended, to which each guest was asked to bring a poem to read around the table. Most of the guests were writers, although I was the only poet.  I am embarrassed to say how long it took me to choose my poem -- so many of my favorites I had to disqualify as too long, too sad, too intimate, too familiar,  or inviting an inaccurate autobiographical reading.  I mean, nobody wants to have to hear the whole “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” before they get to eat dessert. 

     Aha, I thought, Stevie Smith (pictured above)! A poet I love. She’s funny, she’s poignant, she has lots of short poems.  Lots of short poems about Christianity (no), death (no), ridiculous people (no) and unhappy love(no!).  Just when I was about to have a fit -- because did I mention that I left all this to the last moment and had persuaded myself that I was about to make a great fool of myself in front of a whole roomful of people I admired and esteemed and even, in one or two cases, was a bit afraid of, and I was beginning to wonder if  possibly, my humiliation was the whole secret point of the exercise --  I found  this wonderful poem:

Mrs. Arbuthnot

Mrs. Arbuthnot was a poet
A poet of high degree,
But her talent left her;
Now she lives at home by the sea.

In the morning she washes up,
In the afternoon she sleeps,
Only in the evenings sometimes
for her lost talent she weeps,

Crying: I should write a poem,
Can I look a wave in the face
If I do not write a poem about a sea-wave,
Putting the words in place.

Mrs. Arbuthnot has died,
She has gone to heaven,
She is one with the heavenly combers now
And need not write about them.

Cry: she is a heavenly comber,
she runs with a comb of fire,
Nobody writes or wishes to
Who is one with their desire.

   As it happens, another guest brought  a poem on the same theme, Brenda Shaughnessy’s "A Poet’s Poem":

If it takes me all day,
I will get the word freshened out of this poem.
I put it in the first line, then moved it to the second,
and now it won’t come out.
It’s stuck. I’m so frustrated,
so I went out to my little porch all covered in snow
and watched the icicles drip, as I smoked
a cigarette.
Finally I reached up and broke a big, clear spike
off the roof with my bare hand.
And used it to write a word in the snow.
I wrote the word snow.
I can’t stand myself.

  If Mrs. Arbuthnot had written a poem about not writing that poem about the sea wave, it might have been this very poem.   

   So if nobody writes or wishes to who is one with their desire,  has the poem itself become the elusive, resistant love object, the modern  Phyllis or Clorinda?

Posted by Katha Pollitt on August 02, 2009 at 06:18 AM

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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