Last weekend, Tom Beckett and Geof Huth gave a reading in Buffalo, to read and celebrate their collaborative joint interview, a project of at least a year. According to one of their accounts, 11 people attended. Buffalo is too far off for this camper to shuffle off to, and the school year at Buffalo was over, but still, that 11 seems not enough. For any reading, that is, let alone for one that really promised a pay off. What's up with poetry?
Poetry is not some camp we go to, either as vacation or as a neglect of more serious stuff. Poetry is the language itself, yours, mine, and that of those people over there by the daylilies. It is the language of Margaret Fuller drowning and of Thoreau on the seashore looking for her remains. It is the language of that and more. You know this.
We as poets, writers of poems, need not be defensive about poetry. It has a function that we can describe and honour. WCW was right (once again) that you cannot get the news from a poem. Poetry is not for the survival of facts, but for the lifting of facts and concerns to places of importance. Poetry is language at the essence of communication. Granted, this communication is not at the simple delivery level of thing for thing. Heidegger (which see) grants us distinctions by going at the idea of thingness, which sounds at first (and at second, and at third) like a convolution until one relaxes into the ride of that query and realizes the barest minimum. Emerson notes that every word was, initially, a poem. Exaltation, exultation, excitation.
We need something to get thru the screening process, thru our lack of attention, thru our mundane distraction. Poetry is a capability that we discover and develop. As a writer, I came to poetry as an alternative to the bounded possibilities that I saw (novels, essays, whatever: they were (at least I thought they were) fully defined. Poetry, once freed in my mind from metre and rhyme, which overwhelmed any other aspect of poetry for me, looked likely to give me space. I was ignorant, no question, but I did not see myself writing like someone else.
As I have written before, my first palpable influence as a writer was probably Robert Benchley. I liked his humour, of course, but also, I liked the sense of his stance. I saw him as being able to writer 'like that' about anything. Sure, I mimicked him some, and others as well, out of envy as well as within a process of learning. I knew all along that I could not capture the thing of most interest, but learning that was a step in my own slow growth as a writer. Eventually, I allowed myself to teem with my own necessity, not that of the already integrated.
I and others have written of the reading that Tom Beckett gave in Cambridge in '07. It was wonderful to witness his nerves, his insistence, his involvement. Geof Huth was not on the docket that day but his presence was felt (the intimate dynamics of the reading space allowed audience involvement, and even just Geof's furious notetaking was a contribution). Later, at the pub, the conversation roiled, with Tom and Geof, fellow reader Charles Shively, Jack Kimball, and others. To which, alas, I was unable to enter by virtue of where I sat and that I had to leave early. The point of this remembrance is just to note the intensity of the combination: that Poetry. That some heavy shit, man.
I have always felt slightly icky about poetry and about calling myself a poet. Poetry is grand spaces, for sure, but its intensity is often read as merely rarification, only those born in high places with lungs that can breathe the thin air there. Partly, that is true, but only in the sense that you need strong lungs, just to stretch the metaphor awkwardly. Poetry is learned, not bequeathed. Really, the learning is the interesting part, once you get used to the effort. Like running, where you learn to resist the boundaries, go further, harder, until the occasional moment of ease that makes a lot of trudging worthwhile.
Poetry is so damn useful, because it directed me to learn words, and how words work together, and what words could mean in contexts that they, the words, did not expect. And so forth. I acknowledge the great debt I owe to Charles Olson, for the interesting paths he suggested to me. I will shoo idolatry aside (it has its uses for the youthful writer) and remain with the fact of the interesting venues I saw in Olson's attempts. Science and history and philology and politics and aesthetics. You might find the same elsewhere. Gather it up, it is Poetry.
It was an event in Buffalo, I have no doubt. It was an event when Jack Kimball, in his excitement over the evolving work, showed and read to Beth and me the ms for Post-Twyla. It will be an event when Jeff Harrison and I read either of our two endless collaborations in public (halfway between Arkansas and Massachusetts, I wot). Poetry is an event. It is language poised for any possibility. Your language, my language, the world's language. We do not need to be defensive about our interest in such a thing. It is worthy of the best spaces on our cave walls.