I have been reading the recent omnibus book review by my friend Kevin Clark in The Georgia Review. Kevin is always smart, perceptive, and open to many kinds of poetry. Here is what he has to say about one book of poems in which, he acknowledges, it’s difficult to tell what’s happening or even who’s speaking: “We can’t be sure of the details, and therefore we can’t contextualize the speaker’s problem.”
He goes on to generously explain this poet’s work by saying that he realizes that in her poems, the poet wants to “demonstrate pandemic victimization and she wants to personalize such suffering—but she doesn’t want to privilege any one person in such a way that we’ll ignore worldwide troubles.”
In other words, if I hear him right, this poet doesn’t want to make the suffering she depicts in her poems personal, because we might locate suffering in THAT place and not others.
Maybe it’s a good book, maybe not. The poems function like a koan. They mean to disrupt our rational minds. The point of a koan is to open the mind to the truth that both is and isn’t rational. It’s a teaching tool to be used by an awakened teacher.
But the poems in that book are to be read by you and me. The ones I’ve read do not move me. I am not changed by them. I grow tired very quickly of dislocation. I can admire the skill, the variety of expression, the interesting leaps, but honestly, I will never turn back to them.
I remember my word-drunk days, but I’m not in the mood now to offer a generous, “Oh, probably I’m just too old and too conventional to appreciate such work.” Neither am I in the mood to admire poems that require me to impose and superimpose meaning onto a surface that’s been deliberately obscured in order to show me that the universe is a cauldron of chaos. There is no value in that. I know it already.
I recently read my poems for the women in this photo. They are members of a nearby P.E.O., a national organization that provides scholarships for women in need of them. There are monthly chapter meetings, with brownies, cookies, and coffee, and various speakers. They invited me to read and talk about poetry with them last week. These are intelligent, educated women, many of whom don’t make a practice of reading poetry—as is true of most of the people I know.
I write poetry with Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, William Shakespeare, and the women of the P.E.O hovering over my shoulder. My wish is that they hear my poems and be glad they heard them.
My nephew Kevin, who’s written music for Yo-Yo Ma, says that Ma told him he used to think he loved music, but he found it’s people he loves. This is why he’s a great cellist. This is what makes a great poet. In the early stages of writing, there seems to be a need for obliviousness to “effect,” but gradually, we look outward with respect for the other person, the reader.
There needs to be the commitment of both subject and verb. I have a sister who’s in great pain every day. I have a dear friend dying of cancer. They are specific people, located in time and space. My tears for them are my tears for all suffering: I can’t cry for the abstract world, or random pieces that stand for the whole—I cry for what I know.
I must be broken open, to feel anything. To be broken open, I need to have my usual surface shattered, or punctured. I can’t protect myself with clichés, or with my favorite stories and ideologies. But this breaking open can only happen when I let myself pay attention to where I am, to hear the subject, the “I” part and the verb, the “hurt” part.
The third aspect of the Buddhist Eightfold Path is often translated as “Right Speech—to my mind a very misleading translation. Chogyam Trungpa calls it “perfect communication, true speech”—in Sanscrit, it’s satya, which means “being true.” Sometimes it’s called “complete” communication. Completed
What is “complete” communication? All I know to say about this is that it is informed by wisdom. Wisdom is made of mindfulness derived from disciplined attention to what’s right here, right now. It sees the interconnectedness of all things.
I admire Robert Service’s poems, I admire Alfred Noyes, Lewis Carroll, and many other poets that read easily across their surface. I don’t write those poems. I deeply admire a lot of poets who aren’t like me, who don’t write like me.
Whatever they’re like, though, I want poems to be complete, poems that take in the surfaces, but that that carry me beneath and above, poems that ponder and pop and surprise and relish and agonize and despair and rejoice, all the while holding onto the magical thread of meaning that connects one of us to the other.