This essay is a revised version of a talk given at the Poetry Project, as part of A Reading for Harp & Altar, on Dec. 10, 2010.
If, like me, you are a poet, perhaps you too have had the discomfiting experience at a party of telling someone that you write poetry and receiving in response the polite yet totally excruciating question: What kind of poetry do you write?
A silence follows, as the mind goes off in search of kinds, like trying to map out pond-sized regions of a great and nearly horizonless ocean. Recall Jack Spicer on the poetry no one listens to: “This ocean, familiar in its disguises / Tougher than anything” And Robert Duncan: “We have gone out in boats at sea at night, / Lost, and the vast waters close traps of fear about us.”
What kind of poetry do you write? What kind of poet are you? What possible answer can be given to this impossible query? The questioner seems to presuppose a world of poets professionalized into subspecialties like lawyers devoting themselves to probate, real estate, torts, litigation, etc.: sonneteers, for instance, or prose poets, or poets who will never again write a line more than four words long, or poets determined to only do one thing. Elisa Gabbert reported on her blog The French Exit that, faced with this situation (What kind of poetry do you write? she was asked over cocktails), she replied first with an arch Socratic parry—What sorts of poetry would you recognize?—and then with a crisp and definitive postulate—Poetry doesn’t taxonomize neatly. This diplomatic answer, though, begs elaboration; messy taxonomies, if not terribly illuminating, can at least be entertaining—as well as excellent publicity, an incitement to further reading, a context for the list of poetry recommendations that might be in the offing at some further point in this hypothetical party conversation. Even spare, unwieldy categories can be helpful in fostering a discussion about poetry so that there is something concrete to talk about and argue with. Yet every time a putative “kind” of poetry is noticed, named, or diagnosed, it seems as if immediately everyone wants in, huddling together for warmth under this new blanket. No sooner has it been marked out then the edges fray and the whole fabric unravels. Perhaps the question is simply an attempt to mark out some familiar territory, to determine some identifiable tendencies: geography, if not necessarily divided into nation-states. Thus one might learn whether the poet’s work is geared more to performance or page, whether it hews more closely to textbook, novel, or autobiography, whether it sounds more like a song or an essay, is built more like a painting or a collage, is interested in messiness or intricacy, length or density, consolation or disturbance—as if these were necessarily choices or viable dichotomies. Above all, though, the question, with its search for parameters, indicates the limitedness of engagement, as the first step is taken in an arc at the end of which a poet’s work is absorbed, comprehended, and then dispensed with like the conversation itself, the worn-out questioner or the poet going off gratefully to get another drink.
The other introductory question that seems to crop up most frequently in these casual exchanges is the old standby: What do you write about? I almost prefer the “kinds of poetry” question, because at least it turns the topic to poetry as a social convention, occurring among people alive together at a particular moment in time. The question of topic, on the other hand, seems almost like an accusation, either to be answered flippantly—The last poem I wrote had the word “phlebotomy” in it (it didn’t, though I suppose it could have)—or with the stutter of a first session with a new therapist, as if the true question being asked was, What are you about?, which is maybe what everyone is asking everyone else all of the time at parties, though usually without raising the issue outright.
The question of about-ness as relates to poetry is troubling on multiple levels: first, that poems necessarily and clearly have a subject at all, something for them to be about; second, that this vaunted about-ness could be usefully summarized or even articulated at all beyond the bounds of poems; third, that a poet’s poetry must exist as a totality with a subject hovering over each individual poem or book of poems; and finally, that a poet is actually privy to this knowledge and able to operate as emissary of his or her poems. A common answer to this question that I’ve heard on numerous occasions, often after a bewildered silence, is a doubleheader: love and death. (Love, of course, can in some company be replaced with sex, for an extra zing; death, on the other hand, is fairly all-purpose.) Answering this way provides a certain zoomed-out clarity, as if, from the perspective of evolutionary biologists, time-traveling future anthropologists, or intergalactic aliens, these would be the only things anyone might ever worry over enough to write about. Thus the conversation on poetry can be simultaneously opened and shut. Yet really any answer of this ilk, accurate and at the same time hopelessly over-the-top—I write about everything in the universe everywhere I can think of or I write about powerful feelings I have felt in my life as I remember feeling them while sitting at my desk or I write about the history of humankind and/or the lack thereof or, at its pithiest, I write words about words—points to the danger and discomfort of assigning topics as lifelines, as reasons to exist. Despite having a poet in the family, my mother asked this question of a poet she found herself talking to at an annual holiday party she attends every year; this time, she received a hostile stare and then, wonderfully, the unexpected response: I told you last year! (Last year, it turned out, the answer had been more predictable: sex and death.)
Like many other poets I’ve talked to, I struggle in the face of this offhand question, What do you write about?, trying not to wince in gross disproportion to the likely slight interest level of the benign, often distracted interrogator, who is supportive but probably equally happy to talk about something else. Yet the asking—and the difficulty answering—exposes an essential issue about poems that constantly undergirds my writing process and, even more so, my reading practice: the difficulty of engagement and how it is wedded (or perhaps engaged to be wed?) to the engagement of difficulty.
For the last few weeks I’ve been trying to clean off two bookshelves crammed with years-old literary journals, and the task of getting rid of these dusty periodicals—which, for an obsessive like myself, means reading them cover-to-cover thoroughly and with a sense of purposeful finality—fosters a contradictory kind of engagement, in which I find myself almost relieved to discover poems for which reading can act as a kind of using up of words, arriving at the point of “getting” the poem and then turning the page. These poems often foreground a stentorian about-ness: clear subjects regarding which readers can form opinions and make informed decisions about how closely to read, how much attention to give, and how quickly to turn the page.
Aiming to clear away the journals—to donate them to a used bookstore or even, horrors, toss them into our recycling bin—I feel a perverse incentive to beeline toward poetry I find the least engaging, so I can toss it aside with a clean conscience, checked off an imaginary list of all the combinations of letters in the universe requiring my occasional attention. The same problem looms in contemplating the books piled up on my desk and the poems in web journals open in tabs on my browser, as I try to chart a course of reading between works of challenging uncertainty guaranteed to demand an enormous investment of time and attention, and more discursive work that can be dealt with and set aside. Journals arrive in the mail so blithely, but what they demand is often quite extraordinary: not a limited consideration but a pledge to stay involved almost radically, even despite myself, in a reading that has already started, is ongoing, and will never end. The problem, then, is in the friction between a mindset oriented toward cleanliness and consumption and one that is more forgiving of an absurdity, more willing to strive at the impossible, one that finds room for another book even on a full bookshelf. A kind of Epicurean reckoning seems necessary, a calculus weighing the pleasure of finality against the greater pleasure of engagement with a thing that can never be adequately addressed.
After all, the qualities that engage me inextricably to poetry as an art form are precisely those of indefinition, inconclusiveness, indecipherability, and endlessness, the involutedly personal, the mysteriously obdurate. Reading poetry is to be constantly reminded of the difficulty of engagement, of re-screwing one’s eyes back onto the same unyielding words while experiencing their essential strangeness, the sense of an intelligence that is larger no matter how big one can make one’s own. How do you know when you are done reading a poem? When to move on? It is the genius of poetry as a format of reading to render all language inexhaustible in this way, making even seemingly straightforward messages odd, squiggly, and indigestible.
What attracts me most to the poetry to which I am attracted is the fact that it repels me right back—repels understanding, repels attention, and repels absorption in the way facts and opinions and narrative arcs tend to be absorbed. It is not unyielding, of course, since thinking through a poem often leads to discoveries as one reads and re-reads, but what is discovered is only ever provisional and incomplete, as the poem extends or unfolds slowly, endlessly, uncertainly, yielding to an attention that is itself continuously inconstant.
Is the wandering mind an embarrassment to be overcome by screwing the eyes tighter to the page and shining brighter lights on the words? Engagement in a poem is often a matter of following intimations of greater clarity, yet these intimations are not remotely the fact of reading. It is this aspect of my reading practice that I struggle most to bring across when I set myself the task of writing essays about poetry. Glossing a passage through close reading that leads to some sort of conclusion—a paraphrase, a testing of two seemingly contradictory possibilities implied by a line that are then brought to a tense synthesis—is such a powerful tool. A reader-critic becomes expert, not merely interpreting a Rorschach blot of words but actually solving mysteries, delineating substance and meaning. The more abstract or irresolvable a poem’s syntaxes, the more this critical apparatus can reshape the poem into order, locating a pattern, a pathway, a plot. Often this is what is in fact most appreciated in the critical essay, offering the enticement of clarity in about-ness that allows the reader to relax into a poem’s refusal to be “about” anything. Keats so famously gave the name to Negative Capability, “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Perhaps the critical tools of “fact and reason” in an essay on poetry merely allow the critic to soothe dubious readers away from terror or irritation, and ease them toward patience and tolerance in a state of weightlessness, in a fog.
Still, when I’m writing an essay I have the inescapable feeling that I want to divest myself of tools, rubrics, and capital-I ideas in order to draw myself closer to those aspects of reading engagement that are not active, not based in pushing but rather in tolerating being pushed. I want the passivity of engagement, the kind that is more like a pledge, a plight, a sense of allowing oneself to be in danger, than it is like conflict or resistance. Geoffrey G. O’Brien recently published a chapbook-length poem that is cheekily entitled “Poem With No Good Lines”; one can’t help already hearing the pun ‘up to no good’ rubbing against the commonplace in which a good poem is made out of good lines, each line a little viable poem world of its own. O’Brien seems to half-suggest that he is actively seeking the non-viable, the paltry, the picayune. Following O’Brien’s ironic sincerity, I find I want the essay with no good examples, if not without examples entirely, one that could follow the kind of reading that happens before language, before meaning, before the words have resolved themselves in the light and I have a clue where I am.
The aspect of my own poetry that most informs how I read others’ work is the sense that, as I am writing, I am constantly arriving at a terminus, scraping the bottom of the barrel. I dot a period and I am desperate for another small idea, another bit of language to keep the poem aloft a few words longer—anything that can stave off the end of this universe. Yet there is less anxiety in this moment than might appear. Because anything in this void can be a kind of deliverance, there is only the ecstasy of plunging ahead, both out of the darkness and also further into it.
In a decisive moment in his correspondence with Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan insists on a criticism that “makes clear some crisis in reading.” There is something absolutely crucial in that idea of “crisis” at the core of engagement: the reader meeting difficulty, an inexhaustible knot of words that cannot be explained away, but instead must be met with patience and a promise, finally, of time. I find myself thinking of Duncan’s poem “Despair in Being Tedious,” a piece of writing that I read and re-read frequently. To despair of one’s tediousness (both one’s own weariness and one’s ability to make others weary) is to chart the limits of engagement, how it threatens to fall into exhaustion, to fail. This poem plays out a melodrama of self-abnegation, placing the self in a hamster-wheel inferno and a wasteland as scored to the lonely rasp of a bowed handsaw. The sentences have a strong sense of narrative momentum through the course of an evening at a bar, fading in and out toward closing time. In certain lines Duncan employs a shorthand journalese, in others a run-on grammar like air escaping from an already limp balloon. The voice is simultaneously manic and despairing, alone and at the same time not alone. Halfway through the poem, which seems to locate ending after ending, he writes, “What did I have to say? The talk was of Asia / and an emptiness in God that men have known / in deserts and in times like we are in.” I’m not altogether convinced by the quick exoticism of using Asia to excuse away an “empty place in meaning,” but I value Duncan’s attempt to approach this precarious space in which words can estrange themselves and unwind, as one’s own tongue becomes another language. Duncan captures the discomfiting exertion involved in entering this impossible confrontation between the finite and the infinite, along with the very human desire for escape: “Your eyes have left me, and they stray / to find some exit from where we are.” It is a poem of hard labor but also a poem of waiting, which is so much like reading. Amid the sweat and squirming in this work shaded with difficulty, squalor, unease, and self-doubt, there is something achieved, finally, beyond talk, in saying. I’ll close with Duncan’s poem:
Despair in Being Tedious
A long way back I look and find myself
as I was then I am, a circling man
in a seizure of talk that he hears too as he goes on.
The silence of the room was empty and I
cried aloud. At ten o’clock, went out
and walkt the empty streets again,
came into the crowded bar for company
and talkt of leaving when the rains began.
Some listend and some tired of me.
I do not know if I am bound
to run upon this wheel, wound up,
excited in a manic spiel of wheel in wheel,
or if I’m free to talk wherever they are free
to listen. A long way back I look,
and I was often disheartend there where I was.
Returning found the room deserted,
an empty space of Asia that crept into me.
I tried to die and did not. The hurt
was an empty place in meaning I turnd from.
That God was Asia I tried to say. Some were tired of it
and left, but there was too much that I had left to say.
I heard the drone of wonders as I went on,
a monotony of windings in the sun that led away
into a waiting in a room that Time itself be done.
What did I have to say? The talk was of Asia
and an emptiness in God that men have known
in deserts and in times like we are in.
What was I come to? As I come to,
your eyes have left me, and they stray
to find some exit from where we are.
“In Asia . . .” There is a desolate possibility
I strive to get across. You gather up your things apart from me.
You do not follow, and I am lost therein.
There is in me a weary stretch I mean to say
some urgency that draws the matter out
I cannot come to, and I want company.
A long way back I look and find
I am still here. I hear the scraping of a chair,
excuses mutterd as they go.
The place is closing and I am alone I fear.
It’s twelve to two.
I have come to myself. Good Night.
I will not need you help
me Lord. From here
Great Asia beyond the horizon of my sight
goes on to nowhere I cannot say
and in that continent as I go
the hour stretches year on year.