The Whole Thing About Poetry
At the Juniper Festival a few weeks ago there was a panel about The Future of Poetry. The panelists were Evie Shockley, Cathy Park Hong, Heather Christle and Rebecca Wolfe. It was good, cutting edge, perhaps too polite but definitely the sort of thing that is supposed to happen at panels.
Rebecca Wolff said poetry doesn’t matter and it sucks that poets, who are smart and engaged people, are wasting their lives on something cloistered and anonymous (my words) when they should become civil servants, business people, people who can make a difference. Essentially, the world is missing the poet’s perspective in areas where they are needed.
I could be paraphrasing this in an unacceptable way, just so you know. But that was the gist.
But today in Paper Cuts, Gregory Cowles responds to an essay by David Biespiel in Poetry, where Biespiel begins, “America’s poets have a minimal presence in American civic discourse and a minuscule public role in the life of American democracy. I find this condition perplexing and troubling—both for poetry and for democracy.”
Cowles’s response is that, well, it’s not just poets who have a minimal presence in civic stuff. “Shouldn’t everyone be more engaged?” he asks.
The stupid poets are the ones who sit around card tables at the local Peace Action and try to figure out their community. They’re great people, though. Don’t get me wrong. Great scholars of later Chomsky, perhaps, and certainly a powerful and relevant group for keeping WalMart the fuck out of their city center. On the poetry front they can handily outline Pound’s fascism and name you all the Brontes and probably they’re okay with whatever Ginsburg did with whoever in the shower.
But they’re serving two masters.
Kierkegaard said, “God does not exist. He is eternal.” What a shakeup! Try telling my mom that God doesn’t exist. People want God to exist but existence doesn’t matter to God.
Poetry doesn’t get involved with politics. Poets oughtn’t care about politics. It’s not their job. Politics are to poetry as existence is to God: not a thing.
Levinas said, “To know the good is already not to do the good.” What a shakeup! Try telling that to my ontologist. People always want to know the right thing to do so they can do it or not or whatever.
Poetry is the natural thing that is everything. I want to describe this prepositionally, like poetry is all around you, but that’s dumb. Poetry doesn’t exist (ink and paper does, but not poetry). I exist. I am all around. But instead of reading this read Emerson and sub in girl/woman as appropriate:
The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him: he does not court you. But the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with eclat, he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this. Ah, that he could pass again into his neutrality!
THAT OLD CHESTNUT ABOUT WHETHER
TO SAVE THE BABY OR THE PAINTING
FROM THE BURNING BUILDING
from Charlene’s eyes
dashing to the bus
for a lost glove
losing my notebook
with a month’s work
answering that question
for myself after:
Would you give your full notebook
for a found glove
No thrill greater than the finding of it
on the floor beneath the very last seat
except the triumph of my I Found It march maybe
& the open hand of Charlene
& Charlene’s eyes & smile.
Poetry, my beloved secondary,
steps back for poetry.
I suppose I want to say that everything feels awfully and equally auspicious. That’s the nature of prophecy and poetry, I think, that as soon as you look at a thing it swells up with meaning and significance. Or “lights up.” And that is also where the hurt comes in. That meaning is all in our heads, and the distance between the intensely physical belief in the significance of what we’ve seen and the wild meaninglessness of the world as it proceeds without regard for that belief seems designed for the specific purpose of heartbreak. To keep living (and writing) as if unaware of the wild meaninglessness is the saddest happiness on the planet.