Where Is Poetry Going?
This is a question poets get asked often. The quick answer is nowhere. This can’t be right, you are thinking. You’ve read plenty of poems about poets walking in the woods, rolling in the hay and even taking a sightseeing trip through hell. True enough. Nevertheless, poets, even when they are fighting in a war, rarely take off their slippers. Doesn’t Homer’s blindness prove my thesis? I bet every one of those eyewitness accounts of Greeks and Trojan slaughtering each other, and the wonderful adventures Odysseus had cruising the Mediterranean, were dreamed up by Homer while waiting for his wife to serve lunch.
Sure, many poets would deny this. Here in the United States, we speak with reverence of authentic experience. We write poems about our daddies taking us fishing and breaking our hearts by making us throw the little fish back into the river. We even tell the reader the kind of car we were driving, the year and the model, to give the impression that it’s all true. It’s because we think of ourselves as journalists of a kind. Like them, we’ll go anywhere for a story. Don’t believe a word of it. As any poet can tell you, one often sees better with eyes closed than with eyes wide open.
Am I claiming, you are probably asking yourself, that most things that happen in poems are not true at all? Far from it. Of course they are true. It’s just that poets have to do a lot of time-wasting to get to the truth. Take my case. One day, out of the blue, the memory of my long dead grandfather comes to me. My eyes grow moist seeing him in the last year of his life limping around the yard on his wooden leg throwing some corn to the chickens. I recall the mutt he had then, and I put him in a poem. There’s even a rusty old truck in the yard. The sun is setting while my grandmother is fussing over the stove and my grandfather is sitting at the kitchen table thinking about the vagaries of his life, the stupidity of the coach of the local soccer team and the smell of bean soup on the stove. I like what I got down on paper so far and fall asleep that night convinced I have a poem in the making.
The next day I’m not so sure. The sunset is too poetic, the depiction of my grandparents is too sentimental, and so much of it has to go. Weeks later—since I can’t stop tinkering with the poem—I arrive at the conclusion that the old dog lying in the yard surrounded by the pecking chickens and the rooster is what I like best. The sun is high in the sky, a cherry tree is in flower, and the grandfather is out of the poem entirely. Typically, I have no idea if there will ever be a poem. Only God knows, and I try not to butt into his business. I strain my ears and stare at the blank page until a word or an image comes to me. Nothing genuine in a poem, or so I have learned the hard way, can be willed. That makes writing poetry an uncertain and often exasperating undertaking. In the meantime, there’s nothing to do but wait. Emily Dickinson looked out her window at the church across the street while waiting; I look out of my window at the early darkness coming over the fields of deep snow.
“Poetry dwells in a perpetual utopia of its own,” William Hazlitt wrote. One hopes that a poem will eventually arise out of all that hemming and hawing, then go out into the world and convince a complete stranger that what it describes truly happened. If one is fortunate, it may even get into bed with them or be taken on a vacation to a tropical island. A poem is like a girl at a party who gets to kiss everybody. No, a poem is a secret shared by people who have never met each other. Compared to the other arts, poets spend most of their time scratching their heads in the dark. That’s why the travel they prefer is going to the kitchen to see if there is any baked ham and cold beer left in the fridge.
February 7, 2011, 5:45 p.m.