Sappho, the Metropolitan Museum of Art
“It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
William Carlos Williams
I began writing poetry late in life and published my first full length book when I was fifty-one. The Moon Reflected Fire did well, won The Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and poems from it won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Massachusetts Cultural Council, Poets & Writers, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. The poems collected in it received fairly wide journal publication. The book was created by contents under pressure. I’d been in the Vietnam War and hated it. People identified with the fear and anguish in the poems. But I wanted to escape the subject. I’d had enough.
I began writing about other things and I spent my two months at McDowell Colony trying to find new subjects and a new voice. Many of the poems were comic, and I revisited the surrealism that had attracted me earlier in life. This period resulted in Blues for Unemployed Secret Police. This book was less popular. I think it was because the poems were written from the head instead of the heart, which is fine—there are many good poems written this way—but they don’t necessarily offer human sustenance. Bergson wrote that comedy is “…the mechanical encrusted upon the living” and “the momentary anesthesia of the heart.” If you slow down a film of a football game the actions of the players become lyrical, and an end coming off the ground to catch a pass is balletic. But if you speed up the film the characters become comic, like monkeys scrambling for a bit of food. Freud said that laughter was a release from the repression of unconscious material, a kind of exploding valve on the social pressure cooker. Combat veterans can tell you that dark humor, which shuts down the heart, is a means of survival. But my second book, although it won a production grant from the Academy of American Poets, was not as well respected as the first.
My third book, Horse Medicine, was a return to the body and the heart. It has done well, and a forthcoming book drinks from the same well. But when the great historical culling has taken place, what can be inductively known about what people get from poetry? When I was an undergraduate in the nineteen sixties poetry was central to the culture. Galway Kinnell and W.S. Merwin were the stars and their books were proudly carried on campus. James Tate had created another river of poetry from the eternal spring of surrealism and people loved it. A poetry reading could pack an auditorium. Everyone read poetry including students and faculty from fields like physics and chemistry. It was a time of cultural revolution and imagination mattered. What was it they were getting from the poems?
And what happened? Although The Poetry Foundation insists that more people are reading poetry than ever before, I don’t see it. The students I’ve taught recently do not value it. It has been suggested that what we got from poetry they are getting from songs. Poetry has veered toward the intellectual and seems to have absorbed the critical theory that has taken over college English departments. Emotion is suspect in this poetry and irony is king. There are notable exceptions: poets like Dorianne Laux continue to speak to the heart and she has a large following. I think the answer to my question – what do people want from poetry—can be found in her work and in a few others.
Poetry has taken another course in the past few years: performance poetry, also called slam poetry. It is much more popular than the poetry that has become comfortable in the academic world. Most of it is terrible, but it is at best Dionysian. People shout and posture and are applauded for it. Some of it is clever and a smaller subset is talented. Rhyme has found its way back in this poetry. It is post-literary and a kind of renewal of the oral tradition. It’s not worth much on the page and the performance is all. People sometimes costume themselves. It is political occasionally and one hundred percent demotic. The binary between “mainstream” and performance poetry remains and hopefully the two camps will begin to feed each other. What is it that performance poetry has that mainstream poetry needs? A connection to ordinary people’s lives. And what does mainstream poetry have that performance poetry needs? The answer is easier there: craft.
Some poetry combines the two: Martin Espada is a fine poet and excellent performer. He is incisively political and neo-romantic (is there such a word?). He proves that nuance and performance can be one.
I’m seventy-seven. I have for some time been deeply in love. Not the wise and doddering love expected of the aged, but a fierce and all-consuming love that makes my old body want to do more than it is capable of. Does this appear as folly to the young? The young who believe they’ll never cross the bridge onto the island of the aged? I don’t know and don’t care. I’m very happy to be where I am and am finding a language for it. We live longer now and there is a place for this kind of poem. There is a place for the unfolding of a long and various life.