By Heart: Reflections of a Rust Belt Bard
Part One: Teaching Tu Fu on the Night Shift
Tom Clancy and Me
Teaching Like My Fathers
What the River Says
The Scholar in the Hayfield
Part Two: Curriculum for a Bardic School
By Heart: Curriculum for a Bardic School
My Horse’s Flanks Are Spurred
Part Three: The Poetry Broadcasting System
The Poetry Broadcasting System
The Shapes a Bright Container Can Contain
Letter to Bill Heyen
This Is Heyen Speaking
My Dinner with Joe
The Elsewhere: A Verse Essay
On the inside flap of his Universitas Bucknellensis algebra notebook, a freshman from Flushing, Queens once wrote, “Mine is the soul of a bard.”
Yes, I did. Sometimes, when a student comes into my office bearing aspirations, I recall that scrap of hubris and think, “Whatever’s here can’t be bad as that.” And it never is.
But I’m deep into the process of forgiving my former self. After all, he was just expressing our cultural belief that poetry emerges from a kind of inspiration reserved for those special beings we dub “bards.”
These essays come out of a life of teaching and writing which has revised my notion of poetry’s source, of the places where it thrives and the purposes it may serve. As for bards—well, the seemingly audacious claim of this book’s subtitle doesn’t stem from birthright, but from an older definition of the name. Bards, in this ancient way of thinking, are a class of teaching poet, who simply pass on “the music of what happens,” as they say. And that’s what I’ve set out to do.
It’s not that I no longer find poetry soulful, and I certainly don’t think anyone can write well or read deeply without an immersion in craft. Poetry remains elusive: difficult to find, make, or teach. But I’m less likely to see inspiration rising out of my—or anyone’s—selfhood. Like weeds cracking through asphalt, poetry wells up in the crevices, rupturing the slabs of the everyday to striate speech with song, tradition with resistance, and the visual with the ineffable. Evading definition by club, school, or institution, poetry is a kind of subversion that permits our vagrant selves to surface and blossom.
While they stem from particular occasions, these reflections cluster around three concerns. They begin in Youngstown, Ohio, a place that has given me plenty of opportunity to study sidewalk cracks. In 1990, I arrived as a new assistant professor in a town I’d never seen. All I knew was that my teacher, the revered poet James Wright, came from a burg just south of here. Since then, I’ve developed an allegiance to this region that Wright calls “ Beautiful River”—in all its calamitous glory. “Heartland,” proclaims the license plate, but I’m inclined toward “rust belt”: a coarse, iridescent garment with a pungency missing from homogenous beltways. Maybe it’s the weather (wetter than Seattle), or the hint of soot wafting from moribund steel mills. Maybe it’s the grief that knits a town when thousands lose their jobs at once. With its iconic facades, stripped-down department stores, and traffic lights blinking over ghostly gridlock, Youngstown recalls Whitman’s lines: “and if memorials to the dead should be distributed everywhere . . . I should be satisfied.” Youngstown’s students too have taught me about the “in-between.” Working full-time at low-paying jobs, living at home, caring for families, they bring to every classroom a sense of scepticism, worldliness, and humor. And what about the university itself, this jewel set in a toad’s brow? Living here has made me question the place of the academy in a world where the vision of an ivory tower has crumbled.
The essays in the first section allude to other places which constitute my own personal rust belt, and the second section takes place in some of these locales. One such was Cork, a city named after a swamp. When I went there for my junior year abroad, Cork was something between a small city and a large village. Poets planted their elbows next to politicians; sheep grazed on the downtown soccer pitch; gossip sped faster than broadband cable. Over the years, I returned often enough that it almost seemed I had a second life in the city of swamp and gossip. And there was Lubumbashi, in the country known then as Zaire—where I taught as a Peace Corps volunteer at a university that had few books and spotty wiring. It is in places like these—far from the mainstream—that I’ve felt most at home.
Is there a reason why the oral tradition seems to flourish in backwaters? The essays in the second part of this book take up that question, celebrating a practice passed down from singer to listener, generation to generation. Whether set in a cottage in West Cork with the poet John Montague, or in low-life Ohio bars playing music with an Irish band, or in beehive huts on the West Kerry coast, these essays describe places where reciting a poem is as ordinary as passing on the news.
The essays in the last section, “The Poetry Broadcasting System,” are preoccupied with another home—one not found on any map. Directing an independent literary press, running a university Poetry Center, designing a consortial MFA program, constructing my own books, and enjoying residencies at writers’ colonies (including Yaddo—the setting of the last piece in this book), I’ve had some chance to weigh poetry’s place in the world. When I hear that no one reads verse anymore, I think of the boxloads of submissions I’ve received as an editor; I think of the quiet, intense months spent with writers and artists from California to Prague; I think of the febrile gift economy of the small publishing world, which offers an alternative to the commodity-centered market. I think of all the poetry and music spoken and heard, entwining singer and listener, while giving both the opportunity to—in Tu Fu’s words—“assent to their own spirits.”
This book doesn’t pretend to offer an overview of the landscape of pedagogy or poetics. Rather, it records moments in a solitary journey over broken ground toward an unknown destination. It’s a book about the way we become most fully ourselves by passing things on: blending, amplifying, and refracting the past through the agency of a wayward genius that is deeply personal and as anonymous as breath.
Now that sounded good. I must have a bard’s soul after all.
There are whole books praised and never read.
Borges, says Frank, went one further. He praised books that were never written. Phantom books. Make-believe authors. And this is not off point, since Frank himself, letter of acceptance from Miami University Press in hand, threatens to decline publication of his manuscript, thus joining the ranks of the make-believe, the phantom, the unpublished.
“It’s unheard of,” I say.
“Yes,” says Frank, “I suppose I will be.”
Frank Polite is not exactly my father, but if you’re a poet in Youngstown—and what else can you be with unemployment what it is?—you’re pretty much Frank’s bastard. He has a real son, Khepri, by his first wife, who once played the sexy Zenite mining alien in a Star Trek episode. No, now that I think of it, Khepri belongs to Frank’s second wife, the jazz singer. I met her at a local speakeasy; Frank introduced her as “the mother of my son.” That’s Frank. Only he can get away with tweaking ex-wives.
“They just want to mother me,” he shrugs.
Frank saw Borges read once, and during the question period felt the need to be recognized as a fellow human by this great man and so stood up and caught the attention of the sighted translator and asked Borges what he thought of Yeats.
“Stupid!” Frank spluttered, telling the story, to ask Borges, this Homeric presence, what he thinks of another writer.
Then Frank’s face lit up as if he himself were blind, delivering Borges’ reply, “Thank you for linking my name with a name of such greatness.”
Some days in this ex-steel town, it’s hard to link our names to anything great. Hard to imagine Borges or Yeats or Captain James T.Kirk are members of our species, which, I suppose, makes Hyde a trope for Youngstown, as a place and also as a cankerous worry inside each of us, no matter where we live.
Hyde: A Novella Noir is Frank’s book-length manuscript of pantheras, “an obscure poetic form/ developed in Kang-/al-Sivas region of Turkey,” as one panthera reveals. “A panthera lurks & leaps/ jolting its prey into/ a dazed clarity.” This is a region Frank knows well—both the daze and clarity—having once fled a job in the Human Resources Department of Mahoning County to live in Turkey. Turkey has become for Youngstown poets a kind of sister city (our imagination is expansive if fuzzy) whence at least one pilgrim, George Peffer, has reported. George needed a vacation from “the hard work of living.” His review: “We all choke on misapprehended hope.”
Misapprehended pilgrimages are Hyde’smetier. Beginning in ancient Egypt; migrating to Las Vegas; on to Malabar, a hideaway in Ohio where Bogie and Bacall were wed; and finally to the ‘Holy City of Trebizond,’ Hyde “lurks & leaps” through language, an elusive principle of calm in a kaleidoscope of exotic trash.
In this town we take our trash straight up. The other day I found a note stenciled on a cardboard sign in the window of a derelict building. “When you love a place, really and most hopelessly love it, I think you love it for its signs of disaster, just as you come to realize how you love the particular irregularities and even scars on some person’s face.” The words are attributed to “James Wright, Ohio poet.”
Ohio poet indeed! James A. Wright was one of the greatest poet in English since Yeats. There’s something beatific about the appearance of these lines so near their source. Having made the journey from Martins Ferry to Florence to international fame, they return, not as lines from a famous poet, but as the words of a citizen haunting a place badly in need of naming. It’s this kind of harebrained compassion for personal disaster that impels Hyde on his pinball spin across centuries and continents, all the way to the oblivion of an unpublished manuscript.
The reason Frank decided to withdraw Hyde from Miami University Press is that they offered him “a contract from hell.”
“How’s that?” I asked.
“They take copyright, the movie rights, they even skim a percentage off any readings I give.”
“Why didn’t they offer you a standard contract?”
“Well, it is the standard contract, but Hydeisn’t a standard book.”
One thing’s certain: Frank’s not the standard author. There’s something loopy about worrying about movie rights for a manuscript of poems, but as Frank points out, why not? “I’m sixty-two years old. I don’t belong to any university. I don’t care if I get brownie-points from AWP. There’s no real money involved. I’ll just publish it myself if I have to.”
Loopy, to me, louring in a provincial outpost of academia where news of publication seldom reaches. Yet sensible, too. It’s an exercise of one of the few privileges that the ghetto economy of poetry allows. Frank offers a sane response to the current state of affairs: thousands of poets struggling to sell books no one reads.
Nor is this Frank’s first brush with oblivion. There’s the story of Miro Papadakis, the poet from the island of Skyros. Frank received a letter from this rural bard—through what agency God knows—inviting him to meet the great man and to “adventure” with him, translate his works. Frank coaxed a local politico to muscle a grant from the Ohio Arts Council and made his way to Greece. His lack of Greek was no bother; it wasn’t long before he found a bilingual collaborator with flowing dark hair and island eyes.
The adventure started beautifully. Papadakis was a fireplug in a caftan. Wildly hospitable, he caroused with Frank from noon till midnight, sloshing ouzo in his hut on the side of a rough mountain. He composed his poems orally, and in fact had never written them down at all, yet he employed complex stanza forms that seemed to recall the dactylic hexameter Homer had heard in the sea-foam. His images, his intensity, and his simplicity were rooted deep in Greek soil; yet the demotic Greek was vivid as jazz. Few knew this iconoclastic bard, and fewer, Frank believed, appreciated his genius. Frank hoped to produce a volume of these translations.
Then one morning Papadakis disappeared. Frank climbed the mountain path to his hut to find the poet vanished. No note, no good-bye. Lost at sea? Apotheosized? Fled a jealous husband? No one knew. Frank was left with a handful of scrawled poems, the dregs of his Ohio Council grant, and a nubile translator. “Four Translations from Miro Papadakis” were all Frank could save. They appear in his book, Letters of Transit.
Who can trust a fugitive, or translator, or poet in transit, or even their own judgment these days? Would I be writing this, or you reading it, if Hyde’s worth weren’t confirmed by some poltergeist lurking in the basement of the English Department of the University of Miami? Even Lauren Bacall declined to read it. Frank wrote her, explaining that his forthcoming book of poems was set in Malabar, the Ohio resort where she’d married Bogie. Would the great lady accede to read the manuscript? Perhaps write a short blurb? A postcard with SASE was enclosed for her convenience. On it, Frank typed ‘Yes/No,’ with two boxes to check. Frank read the letter aloud at the monthly open reading at the Cedars bar, a country western beatnik festival of bathos. He held the card up for all to see, the card touched by Lauren Bacall, the card with the penciled checkmark under ‘No.’
“She could have at least written it out,” says Frank. “You know how to say ‘No,’ don’t you baby? Just put your lips together and blow.”
Though I pose as a son, I have reached the age when manuscripts have more adventures than I do. In a place like this, the real rift isn’t between Fathers and Sons or between Town and Gown; it’s between Word and Flesh. Our manuscripts live the lives we’ve missed. Every poet has a tale. Like urban legends they follow the same plot, having to do with close calls and dying editors. Our manuscripts flit around the world, seeking danger, avoiding certain death by strokes implausible as a James Bond escapade. There’s the writer who left Youngstown for Boston and lounged so long in Cambridge cafes that when his manuscript was accepted by Knopf he turned them down because word on the cobbled streets was that it’s a bad idea to debut with short stories. There’s the poet who was so afraid for his manuscript’s safety he would mail it ahead when he planned a plane trip in case the plane went down. There’s the poet who was promised publication right before the editor was indicted, and the poet whose reputation was ruined because another poet of the same name circulated dreck. The stories go back to Nora saving Stephen Hero from the fire and beyond, harkening to the old testament mystery of the lost ark.
It’s Flesh v. Word all the way down. Word claims that all you have to do is live until you’re thirty and after that you can hand over the adventuring to the manuscript. “As for living,” says the French aesthete, Villiers-d’Isle, “our servants will do that for us.” Or in our case, our students. You can burrow into the academy, get a PhD (with an oxymoronic “creative dissertation”) and live in the cloud-cuckoo land miles above the Zenite mines where Frank’s first wife panted her fifteen minutes. We too have our poets—eighteen feet of us: William Greenway, Steve Reese, and me. PhD’s and manuscripts in hand, we landed in Youngtown from far parts—first William, then Steve, and finally me, careful not to swamp the boat. William landed two books with Breitenbush and when they folded managed the next four from U. of Akron. Steve’s manuscript was taken by Cleveland State, and my second, after collecting more rejections than a smuggler’s passport, won a small prize from Ashland Poetry Press. Ah, the stories. The strokes of luck. The almosts. The could-a-beens. Of course we submit (perfect word) to all the unread journals, from Poetry to Twenty Million Flies Can’t Be Wrong; though there’s not a penny in it, and some days we doubt if the even the featured authors themselves read any but their own poems. We’re inveterate contest entrants: our entry fee tab tops our bar bills. But we can afford it. Youngstown’s cheap, and short of mayor, we’ve got the cushiest jobs in town.
Fed up with stamp-licking, Flesh ripostes that to be a poet you have to leap out of the ivory tower chuteless. You have to travel to Turkey and work years in the Human Resources Department of the third cornice of hell and marry passionately and often and lose sleep and bleed pantheras. You have to, in a word, suffer.
In the suffering one’s identity is purged. “The intellect of man is forced to choose,” says Yeats, “Perfection of the life, or of the work/ And if it take the second must refuse/ A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.” But Yeats also applied for the job of Professor at Trinity College just in case. He didn’t get it.
Raging in the dark, few attain Yeats’s stature. Most just get the suffering. But the belief that personal experience lends a necessary credibility to poems that we would not expect from fiction is an attractive idea, especially when the suffering looks compulsory anyway. Youngstown may be the official capital of poetic suffering in the U.S.
There’s a need here to shoot yourself in the foot as if success might spoil your soul. Hyde’s gift for duende aside, Youngstown poets regularly maul whatever poor chances for the poor version of success poetry holds out. Sometimes it seems like a stampede toward invisibility, a collective yearning to rhyme the ghost smoke of dead steel mills. Or perhaps it’s just a desire to return to a home whose name has been lost.
For instance there’s Ed Curley. A professional house-sitter, Ed describes a safe orbit around the university, enrolling in, but seldom finishing, courses in a basketload of subjects. Once at a reception for a visiting poet, he spent the best part of the evening in my bathroom, and after he stumbled out I found the sink plugged with Curley flume. This, I suppose, in application to house-sit. And why not. Come sabbatical or June, the faculty is so desperate for any sort of scarecrow to stand sentinel that Curley’s services are always in demand.
As far as I knew, Curley’s poetic career consisted of his monthly performances at the Cedar’s open readings, where he operates as “Leo Rude.” The pseudonym not only pays tribute to Frank but describes the poems Curley reads—fragments from Catullus, Verlaine, and Bukowski—along with lintballs pulled from his own pockets. So I got quite a shock returning home after a stint of his house-sitting to find that Curley harbored poetic ambitions in his own name.
A few days after he’d moved on to his next target, my phone rang and a woman’s voice—cultured, New England—asked for Mr.Curley. I explained that the Curley no longer lived here and left no forwarding number.
“Well, if you do find him, could you ask him to call Maxine Kumin,” and she gave me a number that whirred and jumbled in my head.
“The Maxine Kumin?” I blurted out.
“How kind,” replied the voice.
“If you don’t mind my asking, Ms. Kumin, how do you know Ed Curley?”
“We’ve never met,” the famous poet responded, “but he sent me a letter with a wonderful poem about Alexander Pope. He left this number. I was just calling to thank him. I hope I’m not disturbing.”
Disturbing? My world was turned inside out. I conjured the bulbous head of my housesitter, his Camel slouch. Hard to imagine he’d written anything that wouldn’t fit on a cocktail napkin. But curiosity gnawed, and I drove down to the Cedars and nabbed Curley—who probably thought I meant to pester him about a cracked dish—and I asked for and received a copy of the poem Maxine Kumin praised.
It’s a poem of several hundred lines in two sections. The first section, composed of heroic couplets, pastiches the elegant vitriol of Pope. Addressed to the poet who “considered with a cast eye what dissolves, who assessed bitterness and scale,” the poem echoes Pope’s contempt for poetasters, quoting a line from “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” about a versifier so addicted to rhyming that “lock’d from ink and paper, [he] scrawls/ with desp’rate charcoal round his darken’d walls.” The second section veers into another kind of prosody—long syllabic lines laced with internal assonance, describing a contemporary of Pope who died virtually unknown in debtor’s prison in Ireland. He went by the formidable name of Cathal Buidhe MacGiolla Ghuna, and if he’s known at all today, it’s for Thomas MacDonough’s translation of his poem “An Bannan Bui,” “The Yellow Bittern.” Curley balances these two worlds—one enlightened; one verging on oblivion, suggesting that the enlightenment fed on the neighboring darkness—that in fact light leeched its power from truths incubated in darkness. The horror of the poem comes from the revelation that Cathal Bui, according to legend, scrawled his last poems on his prison walls in charcoal.
Maybe ours is such: a necessary darkness. Maybe we in Youngstown are figures in a dusk without which the belief in a poetry which emerges from a select cadre into the light of publication would disintegrate. Perhaps our role is to remind that every literature course ought to assign at least one book that is not a book. Every bookstore ought to feature empty shelves.
And in case this essay in its published form reflects too much glare, I have taken the precaution of including two poets who do not exist. One was Frank’s invention. There is no Miro Papadakis. In a modern day version of MacPherson’s scam, Frank invented the Greek poet for the sake of the state grant. The great adventure was a yarn woven with Frank’s customary flourishes deep into a Cedar’s endless evening. The four Papadakis poems that appear in Letters of Transit were his own compositions, rendered afterward into Greek by his beautiful translator.
The poet Curley, with a bow to Borges, I have made up myself.
It's one of those pre-fab classrooms in the School of Business building that makes you feel like hooking on a straight-jacket: pastel walls, pastel desks, pastel carpet, no windows. Outside, the evening's warm—maybe the last autumn evening before the rains and snow blacken this ghost-steel town for the next six months. But my students haven't seen much of the day, or the evening, or probably the Fall for that matter: they've driven straight in from suburban jobs, unwrapping a burger as they cruise for parking, or plugging quarters into the basement snack machines before filing into the elevator up to night class.
My father went to school like this—commuting from the 111th precinct in Queens to some ward room in Brooklyn where CUNY set up extension classes for cops, putting himself through night school while he put me through a country club college as far away from Flushing as the moon. What drove him, I was sure, was the need to see to it that the finger wagging over his TV tray in our squabbles about drugs, Napoleon, Vietnam, or Papal infallibility, still belonged to the upper hand.
Something must drive each student here to set aside two nights a week for English 638: Introduction to Modern World Literature: a better job, a child's respect, some undefined hunger. They're here to read, but more importantly to succeed—or at least to keep a step ahead of failure—whatever it means and whatever it takes. And me? I'm far from home—here for the job and lucky to have it—so I tell myself.
But tonight, I saunter into English 638 feeling cocky—not just because I've strolled across this downtown campus on a balmy night savoring the year's last warmth, but because I'm bringing to class the poems of Tu Fu, that wayward bureaucrat from the T'ang dynasty, whose voice speaks directly to all of us in the Business building of a provincial university, where we obey "the summons to Court" that Tu Fu ignored, while "[his] colleagues paid respects to the Ministers of State." Yes, we're supposed to be studying Modern Literature, but tonight I'm feeling wayward, and I think this ancient Chinese poet assuages some longing our presence here attests to, a longing to understand how we have become cogs in a machine we can't smash. I think that Tu Fu, in Carolyn Kizer's elegant translations, bears witness that others in distant times and places have faced the same dilemmas.
Abandon me, all of you. This world does not suit;
In the poems that Kizer translates in Carrying Over, Tu Fu takes the measure of middle-class life and reveals the shame and anxiety inflicted on workers and bureaucrats. The fact that Tu Fu’s ninth century China is so familiar lend a whole new meaning to the word "modern."
Swarms of flies arrive. I'm roped into my clothes.
But Tu Fu does more than scream out of office windows. These poems express angst, yet they are more remarkable for the balance they achieve between the quotidian world and the world of nature and spirit.
Leaving the audience by the quiet corridors,
I love the tact of this poem: the way "stately and beautiful" is placed ambiguously between Palace corridors and the pair of chastened courtiers. I love the way the audience itself—Tu Fu's latest failure in sycophancy—is passed over without comment in favor of compliments for the willow twigs and scarlet flowers, and for the admirable writing of the vain caution. Finally, I love the way Kizer winks at Tu Fu's public persona, that of "a garrulous old man," and reveals at the same time, by enclosing "in vain" in commas, the dignity of his departure.
Harnessed in the working world, still Tu Fu revels in his own conflicted nature. "Each day when Court is over, I skip to the pawnshop,/ My nice Spring wardrobe underneath my arm./ Bit by bit, I am drinking up my clothes!" No romantic, Tu Fu weighs the dangers of bucking the system: "I'll never see seventy now," he sighs; "Life is one, long, fragmented, murky episode." While he gestures grandiloquently, "Sport with the women, open the lavish hampers,/ Guzzle the wine, gleaming and wet as rivers," he is as cagey as any salesman, winking from behind his ecstatic mask, "High-sounding, isn't it? Come quickly then,/ To my place, for now it just so happens/ I've saved enough small change to buy a gallon." I just know my students will love this.
But after twenty minutes of coaxing discussion, after reciting some choice poems, after spiraling into a peroration on suburbia, death, alienation, pleasure, and just about everything short of Napoleon, I'm facing raw silence. Not even Tommy Makem's tease to a tough audience, "Why don't we all join hands and contact the living," gets a response. Well, it's late; the students have been working for ten to twelve hours; their dinners have come from machines, and their families are at home without them. Still, I can't hide my disappointment.
Until tonight, we've been reading modern prose: Conrad and Lagerkvist, Anne Frank and Rosemary Mahoney. And up to now we've responded together: tracking Marlow through Conrad's jungly adjectives, leafing through Bullfinch to follow the allegory of The Sibyl, suffering with Frank, and sizing up Mahoney's China with a street-smart savvy. But tonight, I see the faces before me harden into masks I recognize: they look like me listening to my father—or not listening—just waiting for a pause so I could unleash the silence I whetted in my mind as he droned on.
Perhaps it's because Tu Fu is so relevant that they’re uncomfortable; perhaps his irreverence stirs resentment in students still struggling to attain goals that Tu Fu scorns. He offers no "advancements," no "raises," no "hopes for the future." It's tempting to consider him a drunken loser, and to place as much distance between his failure and our own hopes as a millennium and an ocean will allow.
But that's not it either. The class doesn't attack anything Tu Fu says: the discussion never gets that far. There's a lethargy tonight, edged with irritation. Though Tu Fu is as "gross and unrepentant" as ever, we hammer at his poems as if they were algebra problems.
"What does the willow stand for?" one student asks.
We trundle down the path laid out in high school and followed now by habit: Willow equals spring, spring equals renewal, therefore willow equals renewal.
Finally, one student, wearing a tie and white shirt under his high school letter jacket, owns up.
"I don't like this kind of poetry," he says.
The class perks up.
"What kind do you mean?" I ask.
"Oh, I don't know—you know."
"Well, what do you like?"
"I like other stuff. Not old stuff. Stuff I can understand."
"You like contemporary poetry?"
Feeling picked on, he blurts out, "I like greeting cards."
Now everyone is alert. Some are amused, some almost offended; but the whole class seems intensely interested in what will happen next. It is as if a gauntlet has been thrown down. It is as if I stood up in front of the T.V. set and told my father his beliefs meant nothing to me. I realize that far from resenting a poet for thumbing his nose at the boss, my students seethe against authority as much as Tu Fu did. All the mindless memo writing, all the orders followed, all the meaningless hack work: they detest it, and they retort with Tu Fu, "Could you learn to seed a furrow, and be free?"
But somehow, in this classroom, the tables have turned. Tu Fu doesn't speak for them; they and I are no longer critiquing a world together as we were when we read Conrad and Mahoney. Now, for the first time, I am the representative of yet another authority: the authority of poetry—elitist, elusive, dangerous. While to me, reading Tu Fu seems liberating, to them it is another case of someone else holding the keys; and the gaudier my praise, the more they feel locked out. Now I see why this feels just like those quarrels with my father: the marshalling into position, the private silences. In praising Tu Fu, am I inviting them to enter his world? Or am I just taunting them with a glimpse of a place they have worked to build but will not be permitted to enter?
Yet their yearning to break free is fierce. The greeting card the student received was called "Thanks." It was an acrostic, with interlocking rhymes, in a ballad meter.
There's a rare and special quality
Listen to that: as rhetorically formal as its mauve calligraphy, and compared to Tu Fu, as certain as a commandment.
“What did you like about it?" I asked.
“It’s personal,” the student replied. “It came from a friend. It may not mean much to anyone else, but it's special to me."
What a beautiful way to read! The words’ public meaning do not matter. On the Hallmark rack, this card is just another piece of merchandise. But when selected and mailed, the verses are infused with a private meaning; they are read in a completely new context in which my student's identity is acknowledged, even necessary. While the card means nothing to others, to the receiver it provides an occasion to say, with Tu Fu, "I exult in selfhood, assent to my own spirit." As such, it challenges those who would try to shape personal taste without realizing that before poetry teaches or delights, we must first assent to self. We must first account for the fact of our own spirit.
This mercurial spirit is so strong that even Tu Fu, read in the context of university classes, is drained of the playfulness that makes his work so poignant. However simplistic the emotion of the greeting card, however much we know that it's created by people suffering the same disillusionment as we are—and soothing that disillusionment with a steady paycheck—read now it is plaintive, its very existence in the classroom a reproach to a system that records poems read, then doles out grades like promissory notes for a future with a happy face. Yes, there are days when, like my student and Tu Fu, I feel like saying, "Let them mark me absent." Studying in this pastel classroom with a group assigned here by computer saps Tu Fu of a quality that Yeats called "gaiety"—a joy that transfigures dread. Incredibly, Tu Fu becomes the cipher his poetry mocks.
At what point do we lose this gaiety? As children we know all about subversion. We mimic, we mock, we utter sounds fully confident of their personal meaning. What is the first poem most of us learn if not "NYAH, nyah nyah NYAH nyah?" And despite the fact that children's poetry has become an industry that churns out "age-appropriate" rhymes, children are not at all intimidated by the need to master meaning. They respond to poems regardless of reputation, and they often delight in poems adults fear. Recently, visiting a friend who reads poetry for pleasure, I listened as he and his seven-year-old daughter recited together,
My fiftieth year had come and gone.
While on the shop and street I gazed
What could such a poem mean to a seven year-old? Wrong question. Whatever thrill or comfort incanting its strange syllables affords, it will continue to change as her mind unfolds, and perhaps half a century from now it will recrystallize to yield yet another gladdening. Remembering my friend's daughter's sing-song recitation, I hear an echo of the poems, ballads, and jokes with which my father regaled me before we retreated into rival camps—everything from saccharine ditties to limericks I loved for their forbidden pleasure to Shelley's "Ozymandias." I absorbed them as naturally as another language whose meaning deepened as I grew. Even now I measure my growth by the light these and later poems shed; some of course have dimmed; others continue to brighten. Needless to say, my student's greeting card doggerel won't change; "Thanks" won't continue to tickle his synapses once the pleasure of receiving it subsides; but maybe—just maybe—the satisfaction of revealing his personal longing in a poem he has claimed will give him a taste of the freedom poetic language offers. Maybe he will feel that poems he hasn't mastered might still belong to him as Yeats's "Vacillation" will always belong to my friend's daughter.
Talking about teaching creative writing, William Stafford says, "A writer is one who decides." So is a reader. At the point we allow others to decide for us what is good we lose a vital sense of language as transformative. And when we apply to poetry the kind of discrimination that academia encourages, we jeopardize the very source of that transformation. I'm reminded of the "Peanuts" cartoon in which Charlie Brown wonders, "How do you know which poems to like," and Lucy replies, "Don't worry, somebody tells you." Greeting card, bad; we say. Tu Fu, good.
Perhaps not all of us lose the personal connection with the poetry we read. Perhaps those on top of the poetry food chain are able to maintain that necessary sense that their feelings matter. Yet the ability to appreciate a poem without some authority to tell us that the poem is "good" is very rare. Most of us read with a censorious eye looking over our shoulder, checking to see that we judge wisely. But as Robert Hass observes, "Rhythm is at least partly a psychological matter." When we change our minds, we change also the nature of the sounds we respond to, and poems begin to move us not merely because they are mailed to our address, but because our sense of the personal is broadened to include the dead and the living.
Poetry will be out of place in universities as long as it is treated as a body of knowledge to be tested, as long as it is used to discriminate among us rather than affirm some strand of being that we share, as long as we ignore what the great Irish hero Finn MacCumhal calls the finest poetry in the world: "the music of what happens." It's a tune Tu Fu played—can you hear it?—though he's too slippery for any syllabus.
Well, the next meeting was quite different. I was abashed; they were contrite. We made it through the rest of Carrying Over—the poems of Rachel Korn, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Edouard Maunick, and Shu Ting—modern poets whose work was the reason I assigned this text. I left without much idea if these poems touched anyone's life. But they touched mine. After class a student who enrolled because I had taught her daughter the previous term showed me her favorite poem, called "I Am There." Written by a man named James Dillard Freeman, it was carried to the moon by the astronauts, and there it remains—a raft of paper floating in space.
Reading the poem—which she had found on e-mail—I think of Su Tung Po, Tu Fu's poetic son, who looked into his wine cup, "full of the moon, drowned in the river." I think how alone each of us is, how impossible to reach across this vast impersonal space, and I realize now that my father didn't finish night school to compete with me, but to feed a hunger I could never fathom. He died earlier this Fall, and seeing the faces of my students struggling with Tu Fu, I feel a hunger I can never satisfy: to join hands in the undertow of time and the unconscious—Tu Fu, my father, myself, my students—though they are not my children; not at all.
On the westernmost ledge of Europe near Slea Head in the Kingdom of Kerry, huts of corbelled stone cluster by the Atlantic. Clocháns, they are called, quarried from native rock and hefted into place a thousand years ago, though a thousand years means little to these sea-sprayed fields. If not for the hand-printed sign advertising, “Dunbeg Stone Fort—Beehive Huts Ahead,” I might have trundled past, having my hands full keeping my rental from careening into gorgeous oblivion. I unfold my Yankee length from the sedan and rattle the chain until a pensioner in burdocked overalls shambles down the path to unlock the gate and collect the two Euro admission. As we climb gorse hillocks he keeps up a hum of badinage about Skellig Michael and the Book of the Dun Cow; Kevin and Colmcille and the Blind O’Driscolls, as if raillery could coax them back to life.
“Where’s home?” he asks; then mulls “Ohio” knowingly, as if to seal the secret. At the crest of a mound, he stiffens a finger at the dense, silent city of beehive huts.
They are eight flint humps rising from packed clay. I circle them, then lean against the largest, patting its warty flank. Somehow, with no moldings or wood supports, the makers have executed a mousehole-shaped doorway. I peer into the thigh-high portal, then bend deeper to enter the dark. Inside, moss and clay close in. As my eyes adjust, flecks of daylight pierce the unmortared stone.
Re-emerging into light that now seems brilliant, I wonder who lived here. I don’t know much about 8 th century architecture, but it’s clear that more commodious hovels could have been dug, even out of straw. And there was wood here once, before the forests were cleared.
“Twas the poets,” crows our host, with a look that seems to mock an age that mistakes height for stature.
As he expounds on the annals of this desolate place, rhapsodizing about bards who memorized thousands of lines and fili who encoded the esoteric ‘rosc’ poetry—“the like of which wasn’t heard again until that Joyce fella”—it dawns on me that these were early MFA’s. Our guide doesn’t know the exact requirements, but the curriculum, he says, took between twelve and twenty years to complete, depending on the degree. There were brehons, a class of poet-lawyers who could splice royal lineages as far back as Finn MacCumhal, and monks who cribbed a hunk of western civ on moldy vellum. Behind the monks lurked the specter of druids, whose secret examinations were so perilous that only one in three survived.
Well, between the ritual deaths and the frigid dorms, the registrar wouldn’t have been too busy.
It’s commonplace to say that MFA programs produce too many writers. Asked if writing programs didn’t wind up discouraging young writers, Flannery O’Connor famously replied, “not nearly enough.” But it seems an odd complaint. After all, what’s wrong with breeding talent? Ancient cultures set aside resources for artistic training; why shouldn’t we? And while we’re at it, why not pipe in some heat and cut a skylight?
Over the last half-century, MFA programs have allowed generations of students from diverse backgrounds to cultivate their gifts. Even if most of our graduates don’t wind up on Oprah, they will have experienced an apprenticeship in a mind-broadening field; they will have learned principles of form and nuance that translate into many occupations, and they will have plumbed their potential for self and world-awareness. At the very least, they will have become better readers.
Thus preaches my committee in Ohio and thus have we held during the long years shaping a new consortial MFA program: a cluster of four state universities, each encrusted with a bureaucracy as hermetic as these huts. Appealing for the benediction of the Board of Regents, we spaded proposals, chiseled curricula, and spread spread-sheets over roundtables like fresh straw. The campaign took as long as it once took to certify a bard.
One document we had no trouble composing was the Needs Statement. Having viewed the dizzy graphs, we knew that there’d be plenty of applicants. In Northeast Ohio, just as across the country, the workshops are filling up.
We had a bit more of a problem when it came to explaining what we thought all these students would do when they graduate. They could teach, of course; and we put that down right away. Numero Uno. But a glance at current classes—one prof for fifteen students—revealed that none but a few would achieve this august goal. PhD’s are in the same boat: they survive at about the same rate as wannabe druids. What fraction of our grads climbs on the tenure track? The graphs didn’t say.
Without certification they can’t teach in public high schools, but they might hook up with Poets in the Schools programs, or join the swelling army of adjuncts, or coach soccer at prep school. But even jury-rigged, the ark leaked. So we needed another plank. And we found one:
While the MFA is not a vocational degree, creative writing and publishing constitute a large enterprise that requires new talent…. Major companies in Northeast Ohio depend on a supply of skilled writers and editors. The internship collaboration with local communities, as well as the teaching experience available to MFA teaching assistants, will equip our graduates to enter new and expanding writing fields.
Fair enough. The world needs editors, technical writers, advertisers; and the MFA degree is an ideal preparation for all sorts of writing, just as the committee claims. But today, with the whitecaps mounting coastal granite and the wind stinging the wildness into a wet squint, it all seems awfully tame. I think of a tenth century poem scrawled in the margins of his calligraphy by a monk in a stone settlement just like this one.
The sea is wild tonight.
Do I envy that ancient poet scanning the Atlantic through a chink in his beehive hut? He faced no committees, no boards. No need to justify his scarecrow muse. But I don’t yearn to take his place. I’d miss the food and company and light and warmth, and those Vikings sound more dangerous than a provost. Yet today I could almost yield to the conceit that even in Ohio we live on the edge of a great ocean, peering into the mist, the way these ancient hut dwellers peered out. The sea is not the Atlantic with its terrifying ships, and our universities are far from beehive huts. They are capacious, starbucked, crackling with Wi-Fi. In fact, they seem more like great longships themselves, raiding coasts the Vikings never dreamt of.
And what, to stretch this metaphor, do they raid? Why do these splendid vessels terrify?
Drenched and stiff-limbed, I think with tenderness of the rolling seas of Ohio. I’m proud of the work that my colleagues and I did conceiving, planning and implementing the NEOMFA program. From four separate entities we made a web. We forged bonds among our faculties and paved the way for a program with a virtual campus encompassing hundreds of square miles. We fostered a community that crisscrosses the rust belt. We’ve even laughed about getting a school bus. Still, I feel uneasy. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but in all our meetings I never felt truly at home. I never wrote or spoke in my own language, never thought about the wayward accidents that had nourished my own writing life or how to bring them to bear on younger lives. Not that I want to calligraphy our proposal on parchment, or chant it in rosc, or storm the Regents, proclaiming like Cuchulain, “I give no more proof than the hawk gives that he’s no dove.” But as I recall our solid, serviceable, and successful proposal, with its headings and sub-headings and graphs and samples, I wish that somewhere in the margin I had doodled, “the sea is wild tonight/ No need to fear…”
What I feared then was abandonment. If we didn’t sell our program in terms administrators approved, we would not be allowed a seat on the great ship. What I fear now, after we’ve been ushered on board, is that in composing a plan shaped by the university’s priorities, we tainted something essential at the core of creativity. It might be something felt only in the dark, when even the chinks of light fade.
I fear, even more than slashed budgets and fainting enrollment, being absorbed by a culture that tolerates but does not sustain us. I fear that in defining ourselves in foreign terms like ‘accountability,’ ‘progress,’ and ‘utility,’ we forsake the place where we are most useful, accountable to the voices that speak through us from the past. I fear that in gaining a chair at the amply-set table, we lose our way back to a grave darkness that, once extinguished, may be beyond recovery.
How would such a self-fulfilling proposal look? What would I change, after a pilgrimage to these ancestral MFA’s? It’s tempting to say I’d fling the doors open to artists and performers and visionaries and yes, even lawyers—if they were bold enough to enter a world without codicils. I’d ask students to choose an authentic art using the tools most native: sound, memory, insight, or vision. Writing is not the only way to find this place; it’s just a technology, and should not rule by fetishistic power. Of course we’d have no poetry majors, fiction majors, creative non-fiction majors, translation majors, or playwriting majors. Erase the boundaries. Instead of huddling them into genres, let specialties emerge and entwine out of immersion in all. Modern descendants of early MFA’s should know that they have more in common with the motley inhabitants of this silent city than with people who make advertisements or briefs or newspapers—or university proposals. Open the workshops. But close the craft & theory courses: veil the mysteries from all but initiates. For internships let’s have real ships. Require penniless travel and field work in pastures instead of offices. Teach work that pays the rent, engages hand and mind and frees us from selling genius to a market which twists talent to its own ends. Give credit to poems that bring rain—or in this climate, stop it. Credit for stories that sift into the underworld. Credit for not writing sequels. Graduation comes at the point of exhaustion or death or a re-entry into selfhood that bears the world inside. Yes, it’s tempting, in the slanting rain as I trudge back to my car from a hillock near Slea Head, to revise our MFA proposal. But I don’t want these changes, except in dreams where Ohio is a stormy coast. With my colleagues at home, I stand by the words we wrote.
But I want a larger space for such dreams. Or should I say—after squeezing into a beehive hut—a more intense space, so real and present that it might tint the fluorescent light of a committee room or throb in the engine of an old beater bearing a student across the whaleroad of Northeast Ohio. Let this small dark space remind us who we are, where we come from, and what, if we fail to dream, we might become.
There is a pub in Ballydehob, West Cork, called Leviss. It's a small shoebox of a place with a dry goods shelf, a deal table and three raw chairs, a hirsute recliner, and four stools knuckled up to the bar. Leviss is run by two spinster sisters, Nell and Julia—two beautiful old ladies straight out of "The Dead." They've owned the pub as long any hobbit remembers.
Nell and Julia conduct business, if you call it that, the old way—shuffling in from the parlor to pull your pint, with a "Now my good man;" "Yes my girleen." But for some reason the "Celtic Tiger" seems mesmerized by this old shebeen. If you're Irish, if you've been to Ireland, if you're anyone, you've been to Leviss. Mary Robinson sat in that recliner; Van Morrison guzzled on that stool. The photo of Nell and Julia in Pittsburgh Steelers T-shirts was taken by Dan Rooney, the Steelers’ owner, and last night the gent sitting next to me introduced himself as John, the Chancellor of the University of Alabama. I'm told there's even a sign in an Irish ex-pat bar on the Upper East Side pointing east: "Leviss 3000 miles."
Of course, if you're Irish, if you've been to Ireland, if you're anyone, you know this. You know (though you never heard it from Nell or Julia) Kevin Costner's had a pint here and John Hurt drops in and John Minihan drinks here (have you seen Minihan’s photos of Beckett?), and John Montague regularly waters his Jamesons at Leviss.
I'd like to think that Allen Ginsberg once sat crosslegged on the sawdust floor of Leviss. It's an old West Cork name, (pronounced LEE-viss) but once a tourist is said to have asked Julia, "Leviss? That's Jewish, isn't it. Are you Jewish?" Without a blink, Julia replied, "Yes we are." I'd like to think Ginsberg heard that story. He loved Ireland—Ginsberg did—I'm told. Once, he flew to Dublin to read without fee because the Director of Poetry Ireland, Theo Dorgan, offered him an Irish tweed suit. Theo says Ginsberg was buried in that suit.
The reason I want Allen Ginsberg to have been to Leviss is that I think he may be the last American poet who was anyone. I don't just mean that his name is one of the few poet's names since Whitman known to the general public; I don't mean only that he was a cultural as well as a literary figure. I mean that with Allen Ginsberg died the idea of American poetry as a story that could be kibitzed in bars like Leviss. Of course, it was Ginsberg and the Beats who challenged the story of American poetry, but that's part of the plot too: in challenging, they left it a better tale than before.
It was all explained to me at Leviss one night after closing time, blinds drawn, by a famous Irish poet. If you're anyone, you won't need to be told who.
"You had your New York poets—Ashberry and Merrill and O'Hara and that crowd," he declared, "over here;" and he slid the dregs of a Murphy's pint due east.
"And Hughes in Harlem and Williams just beyond." He thumbed two creamy circles on the bar. "And Bishop up north in the woods," he said, scaling a tri-cornered coaster against the base of the Smithwick's tap, "and Lowell too—grappling his spectral Hitler up in Cambridge.
"Then you had the Chicago gangs," he tapped a matchbox by the tureen of water, "Lee and Brooks and the other ones—Kunitz and Resnikof—the Objectivists. And above," he pointed toward the bar's laurelled mirror, "there was that mad Protestant farmer Robert Bly, and the Ohio footballer James Wright with their Deep Image.
"In the middle, the Iowa bowsers," he downed a wee jag and pucked the tumbler down, "top-guns flown in from everywhere by Henry Pussycat, who plotted for decades to murther Cal.
"Down here," he snapped a pound coin on the bar, "the Southern gentry—Penn Warren, Tate and Ransom."
"And out there," he continued, taking a gulp of Leviss's rough red vintage with his left hand and rocking the western goblet on its base, "The rebels and mumbo-jumbo mystics, Reed and Duncan, Rexroth, Snyder and Ginsberg—with one ear cocked to Nirvana and the other to Gotham."
Finally, with the topography of America completely consumed, he lurched hard left and tamped his fag in a scalloped ashtray, hard as a period.
"And there was Merwin in Hawaii—an extinct volcano."
This was the America this famous Irish poet had been reading for forty years like a palimpsest. It's the America I was taught to read also by some of the very poets nestled in the pints, ashtrays, tumblers and wineglasses littering Leviss bar. It's a story that enriches this famous Irish poet's sense of his part in a great drama. Reading it once filled me with desire to enter its alluring web. It's a story that seems to have unraveled. He asks me, finger wagging, "Who are your contemporaries?"
If an Irish poet were asked this question it would make for a night's great craic. "There's Yeats up in his eyrie and Kavanagh like Antaeus slagging him to earth and Clarke the failed priest and Devlin who almost passed for Turkish, and then the phalanx of Papists: Kinsella, Murphy, and Montague. Finally the tinder explodes and the Northern generation springs up from dragons' teeth: Longley, Mahon, and famous Seamus (like a rock star or pope, known by first name only). You've got Carson and Muldoon hooking fangs, and Simmons, grandson of the Lord Mayor of Londonderry, reincarnated in Gaeltacht Donegal. Before you could turn your head Eavan Boland swats the whole male quiff off the story, flanked by Ni Chullinean, McGuikian and Ni Dhomhnaill—who reminds us that Irish is the only European language in which woman have always had a public voice. Then there's Cathal O’Searcaigh, who bills himself "the Gay in Gaelic," and the new generation of jackeens—Meehan and Boran, and the Cork boyos, Theo and McCarthy and Gerry Murphy the swimmer and Delanty over in the States with Grennan and Liddy.
If you're Irish, if you've been to Ireland, if you're anyone, you know all these characters, and you're bristling to elbow in some of the names I've missed.
Maybe there are still American poets who talk this way. Maybe, in this outpost beyond the beyonds nestled under Mount Gabriel, I'm so far from the new sources of American poetry I might as well be in Brigadoon. Maybe I just don't get it, and you're reading this with the polite boredom you feel for rustic relatives. "The barbarians are pounding the gates again, dear—this time I think they're Irish."
But I wonder, if you are my contemporary, if you read AWP and Poets & Writers, which blip their lighthouse signal promising "there is a story; there are prizes, fellowships, and spangles galore—look at the pictures, all is well," how would you answer the famous wagging finger? Who are your contemporaries?
It's easy to despair of making sense of the burgeoning poetry of this generation, of the three thousand books of poetry published every year, of the colonies and programs, the journals and special-interest anthologies, the workshops and conferences, each advertised with its bespangled visiting faculty—prize adorned, internationally unknown. It's easy to feel that the story has been usurped by "Po-biz," a cynical bestowing of destinies on well-placed cronies. It's easy to feel that coffee-houses have been replaced by computer-generated class-lists. Looking at the wreckage of American poetry in the flotsam of Leviss bar, it would be easy to feel that American poetry is debased.
Perhaps the story finally became too good, had "too many notes," and could no longer bear the weight of its own complexities. Or perhaps I'm merely being naive: as Ginsberg's "Howl" took years to sink into American consciousness, perhaps there are readings going on right now which will seem, from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, to have been present in our minds long before most of us actually heard them. But then why is it that Irish poets seem to know the score? Why is it that when I talk to American poets we hardly even expect to share contemporaries?
If the story of American poetry has ended, there's much to mourn. Any story which entwines poetries of different times, places, and sensibilities encourages writers to learn from one another. A.B. Yehoshua has said that if someone came to Israel and asked about writers, the same five or six people would be mentioned; but visiting Chicago he was assured of the importance of hundreds of writers. And the same name was seldom mentioned twice. Of course the result was that he learned from no one.
Donald Hall argues that contemporaries stretch ambition. The story raises the standard since every new achievement is sifted through tradition. "In my generation," Hall writes, "we wanted to unseat Homer. Now poets only want to get published in The New Yorker." It's worse than that now, Mr.Hall—most poets swim far below that waterline.
While tradition may torque ambition, Leviss—or the Newyorican or City Lights or Naropa or Bread Loaf—can be very small places. They can produce the kind of inbreeding that desiccated European monarchies. Reading poetry the way it's taught in university courses, with anthologies and influences and movements—all the light shining on a few blessed constellations of writers—can be a cramping affair. The belief that poetic consciousness is invested in a few people apotheosized early in life by the likes of—I won't name them, but if you're anyone you know who the king&queen-makers are—is a life-draining belief. I'm not just talking about "multi-culturalism;" I'm not trying to unseat one story by saying there are many. I'm saying that investing poetry in certain consciousnesses, however many or diverse, keeps poetry exotic and apart.
Having a story to tell both enlarges and contracts the world. By connecting us with poets from all over the world, our minds are expanded. By insisting that poetry resides in those figures, the world is shrunk to the size of a map. The story stretches us to read what we would not have understood, but it also keeps most readers alienated from our own original readings. It helps us honor those who have lived rich lives in poetry, but it can inhibit an instinct that ought to be nourished: an instinct to read originally that was very much alive in the poets named here, poets who insisted that their reading as well as their writing be untrammeled.
Don't be fooled: original readings are rare. Few people read, as Yeats says poets must write, possessing "nothing but their own blind stupefied hearts." Reading originally is a gift almost as rare as writing originally. As students we begin by reading in the context of the story, and there’s no doubt this is valuable. Who today would encounter Eliot or Pound or Zukovsky or even perhaps Ginsberg outside of the American story? But reading these seminal poets doesn't affirm one’s identity unless the reader develops an ability to read with fresh eyes, open to the possibility that the next poem encountered might sustain imaginative life as well as The Divine Comedy. I'm not saying that there is any poetry as good as The Divine Comedy. But unless you can approach poetry with such a possibility in mind, you may be condemned never to feel the difference.
Am I suggesting a revolution? If I am, it's not to replace one set of icons for another, not to insist we install these poets in the canon and expel those. Maybe the best poems are those we have read originally.
So, my contemporaries, you ask? There was the woman in San Jose who wrote heart-wrenching lyrics, and my colleague at the University of Ibadan who opened his readings with Yoruba folk-songs, and the young poet I met in Maine ten years ago and have never forgotten, and the performance poet who electrified Binghamton, and my Ohio friends—the one who's written the definitive poem on appliances and the one who's written songs James Taylor couldn't lay a finger on. There's the poet who stands before an audience and dares us to "Give me a subject" for an extemporaneous sonnet. But you've never heard of any of us. Nor do you need to, since you must have your own canon.
What will drive our ambition? What will guide our judgment? How will we avoid simply becoming self-congratulatory without achievement, handing out plaudits to smaller and blinder cliques? For one thing, I don't think we'll stop reading Dante or Ginsberg. And I hope we're not foolish enough to believe that the poets in our town or borough or neighborhood or website are the unrecognized descendents of the Beats or Black Mountain or Objectivists or Dada. If we are wise and humble, we will acknowledge that it is finished. But we will recognize that in its ending, new possibilities blossom: perhaps we can read and write without allegiance to any movement, or better, with infinite allegiances. Our ambition will be different, but perhaps as great as that of our poetic ancestors: to live, for now, without the comfort of a story, to read each poem as if this one—against all odds—could be a catalyst to change our lives, though of course knowing that we will almost always be disappointed.
"The rest I pass, one sentence I unsay."
Finally, I too long for the story. Inflecting our own voices into tunes others will hum and humming tunes made long ago are deeply felt needs, and I feel them as I answer the wagging finger of the famous Irish poet.
So I tell him that the best poet of my generation, the one whose work I've read with the most joy and attention, the one who has changed my life, is Robert Lunday. We met in Zaire, mapped out our ambitions together, equipped ourselves to storm Parnassus as we criss-crossed paths from New York, Cork, Provincetown, Houston, Ohio, Oregon, and Berkeley, and I've lost touch with him in Japan. Robert, I've written this for you because there are so many stories in American poetry, ours is garbled, and we can't even hear each other. If you read this, old friend, write to me, c/o Leviss, Ballydehob.
It’s Saturday night. The living room’s strewn with paper. The Indians are on with the volume down. I slit open the next envelope, take another sip of lukewarm coffee. I am a poetry editor.
How does one become a poetry editor? Yeats seemed to think it a by-product of hair loss (bald heads…edit and annotate the lines…) In my case, the senior editor was up to his eyeballs and asked me to help out. “Why not?” says I. Dan Bourne is a fine poet; he plays guitar and shoots hoops. Twenty years he’s worked on Artful Dodge, nursing it through the mimeograph runs of graduate school all the way to a full-fledged national journal with staff and grants and a basement office and a logo (looks like a dead turtle—we’ll have to talk).
So far, this is what being a poetry editor has meant: I go to the English Department and pick up a carton big enough for a Xmas tricycle, wrestle it out to the car, rope the trunk, schlep the box into my living room and tear the flaps off. Then I dig in.
Next comes the sorting. At first this felt slightly indecent: opening someone else’s mail, reading letters addressed, “Dear Dan,” or “Dear Mr. Bourne,” or “Dear Poetry Editor.” And the letters themselves: everything from the shoulderpadded university letterhead, spangled with credentials, to tickertape-sized “bio’s,” to handwritten notes that drop out of the sheaf like a bizarro ransom note—“take me.” Until now I’ve always been on the other side—wondering whether to enclose covers, what to say, how to entice without explaining, praise without fawning. Philip Dacey has written a grand “Form Rejection Letter,” and William Trowbridge of The Laurel Review sends out a gem of a subscription renewal letter, complete with veiled threats from “Trigger Bob in the mailroom.” In this vein, there ought to be a poem, “Form Cover Letter.” Maybe I’ll write it. Then I’ll write a cover.
Poets often try to gauge editors’ biases: for or against rhyme, political or pastoral, confessional vs. ironic; experimental or narrative. At this stage, I hold a mild grudge against every envelope I handle. When I sling a batch into the reject pile, I’m cheered. There’s a small sense of achievement. Not because I’m glad to see bad poems or because I’m gloating that someone (even folks with muscled covers) could write such dreck. It’s just that I’m a half-inch closer to finishing.
That’s Pile 1. It’s a happy pile. I unfold SASE, check postage, stuff poems and form letter, lick (piquing a delicious neurosis about poison) and place in Pile 1. Meanwhile the husk which contained the processed poems is marked “No,” and placed in Pile 1A to be checked later against submissions records. The process is clean (except for the lick) and certain. Progress is steady. Standards are confirmed. Artful Dodge needs these poems; they are the foundation upon which the journal rests.
Pile 1 is the most human pile. Most Pile 1 poems rely on two beliefs: 1) human experience has intrinsic value and 2) this value can, should, and ultimately needs to be reported. This imperative is so strong that it sloshes over acquaintance; it outstrips instruction, even sex can’t stem it. I think of Galway Kinnell’s lines about his correspondence school students, “their loneliness/ given away in poems, only their solitude kept.” Somehow, only strangers can satisfy this human need to testify. This afternoon, I represent those strangers. I try to be gentle. I read the covers for clues, imagine the life from which the poems emerge. I read a little longer than is necessary to decide.
Pile 2 isn’t a pile at all. It’s a stack, thick as a bankroll. These are the poems I’m going to live with for a while. They are about Gerald Cambriensis and the drift between days and nights; there are phloem and chrisoms, culvers, legerdemain. These poems are hilarious, moving, compendious, eerie. Having torn them from an envelope, I feel as if I’ve assisted, if not at birth, then at a baptism. These are poems I would have written if I’d been given the talent or vision or occasion. I read them out loud; I want to learn them by heart. Looking over Pile 2, I’m amazed how various the poems are. I don’t see a pattern: lyric or dramatic, light or dark, formal or free. If these choices reveal my taste, I don’t know what school I belong to.
What I learn from Pile 2 is how desirous we all are—even poetry editors—to be absorbed, how apt we are for transformation. Sure, I’m surly at first—having read so many submissions I feel like I’m being stoned with marshmallows. But when a Pile 2 poem comes, I feel it—sometimes from the very first line. I’m carried away; I trust implicitly the voice, suspending critical faculties. It might be oracular, “Out of the Rolling Ocean, the Crowd.” Or startling, “My mother has your shotgun,” or serene, “I cannot think of anything today/ That I would rather do than be myself.” There’s a certain authority, the feeling of something impelled, not invented. Here are a few from Pile 2; see if they grab you:
Elvis is reading the Bible to the scantily-clad girls
I can plot Jupiter’s elliptical orbit on a brown
The Lord is a shepherd, he is eating the sheep.
Then there’s Pile 3. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the poems in Pile 3. Pile 3 poems show craft; they exude professionalism; they demonstrate familiarity with tradition. Taken individually, these poems are capable of being admired. But there are so many. They create a mood that closes over you gradually, like a climate. It’s heavy, Pile 3 is. It bulges. Each envelope is spongy as blood pudding. Pile 3 is the kind of reading you do late at night when your thumb aches and you read three pages before you realize you’re re-reading. If I were called in and asked to describe Pile 3 poems for the sketch-artist, here’s what I’d say.
There were two of them, officer. They were narrative; there was a story, kind of, at least a setting. One was outdoors, one indoors, I’m sure of that. Irony? Yes, I felt a bit. Tepid. They each wore two observations—like this; no, closer together. Everything was consecutive. Things floated toward a moral, implied: one was “life, savor it.” The other, “life, improve it.” Or maybe “fuggetaboutit.” They weren’t workshop poems. They didn’t bop in from the street, either. Syntax was normal. Loose lines, tetrameter maybe. One was enjambed, radically. The other read like a sentence with no parole. But it’s hard to tell; the light was bad…
By the sixth inning Pile 3 starts to swell. Most Pile 3 poems believe they belong in Pile 2. Their postmarks snarl. Their covers prepare appeals. I know what they want. They miss their study with banker’s lamp and sofa. They miss the respect which came from the hard work that went into their making. They miss their names. Where else but here, in the first stage of editing a journal, would these poems be read without the protection and empathy provided by book jacket, classroom, or friendship?
When I hear, “Let thought become the beautiful woman,” one word is absent: “Hafiz.” When I read “I have eaten the plums which you left on the refrigerator,” what keeps the door ajar is the murmur, “Williams.” Without those key words these chestnuts might well have been headed for a long stretch in history’s Pile 3. Am I cynical? Calling the great poets mandarins? No. But I’m afraid that certain poems might need a pinch of something, like “Emily.” Maybe they need an approach supplied by history or critical prose. Maybe they need a better editor.
That’s why there’s Pile 4. Most Pile 4 poems did time in Pile 3. Some sounded so crazy at first they were committed to Pile 1. A few poems arrived here directly, often from long distances. How they made it I don’t know. They won’t say, even when I shake them. These poems hint at something beyond my ken. There are times I’m not sure Pile 4 poems are poems at all. Sometimes they come naked, with no cover, and I wonder if perhaps there hasn’t been a clerical error. Maybe envelopes were exchanged? Maybe some clerk at the George Foreman gas grill & metabolizer warehouse is lip-reading, “It so happens I am tired of being a man.” Not that I suspect Neruda of tampering from beyond.
As pleasurable as it is to come upon Pile 2 poems, I know that they aren’t the ones that make a poetry editor. They are thoroughbreds groomed from the get-go; anyone could see that. Pile 4’s where a poetry editor makes his mark. Like a birddog scout who glimpses the future star in the rank hayseed, a poetry editor needs canniness and patience to restore the envelope of silence that permits each poem to be fully heard. To handle Pile 4, an editor has to read every poem as if it were the first of the day, but not the first of his life. He has to follow poems fathoms deep or through an aery clime, even though most often he’s in for a nasty bump on the head. He has to remain able, against all odds, not only to discriminate among submissions, but to come under their sway.
Pile 4 also offers the best opportunities to exercise the poetry editor’s prime function: to edit. A Pile 2 poem might permit some tinkering; but generally they are as clearly articulated as they are finely conceived. Pile 4 poems are often fixer-uppers. But it’s important to be careful. Poets choose their editors—not merely by sending SASE. Before revising a poem, an editor should be committed to the body of the poet’s work; looking at an individual poem he keeps in mind the poet’s overall vision. George Peffer writes that “The good editor tours the whole city before recommending changes.” I’m loathe to roll up my sleeves. When I’m tempted, I remind myself that William Stafford hesitated to change his students’ bad habits for fear that if cultivated, these very habits might yield originality. I think of Dan Langton who used to say that the proliferation of poetry journals has caused the floor (Pile 1) to rise, but the ceiling (and maybe a few Pile 4 poems float up there) to come down. I think of my own leaky vessels sailing out there, while the nail in some poetry editor’s mouth twitches.
At closing time Pile 4 has to fold. Everybody has to go home—back to 1 or 3. A few get the call to Pile 2. Then Pile 3 melts away. By night’s end there can be only two piles.
One of these days, Dan says, we’re going to conference, compare notes and put together the next issue. I can’t wait. It will be something to see poems first loved on xerox with their labels and signatures, headers and “no stanza break” instructions, now dressed in Antique Olive and bound between covers of Artful Dodge, number 38/39—a double issue.
Imagine them together in their plumage, flitting around the short stories, big as orchestral stands. What a ball. The fête swirls on; introductions are exchanged, champagne swilled, flirtations risked. I hope everyone likes each other. I hope it’s the grandest bash since Gatsby. For me, lurking on a balcony, every single glittering guest is Daisy.