These are my remarks from today’s panel on “The State of Poetry” at The Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem. Several people asked me for a copy of the talk so I promised I would post it here.
Good afternoon. Let me start with a poem I wrote for a fellow poet, Baron Wormser. Baron and I are about the same age and have been writing a long time, and for a number of years we were teaching together in Maine, right next to a cow pasture. This is called AT WOLFE’S NECK FARM:
Some days a poet
is like a cow, a yellow
tag: N365 affixed
to a twitching ear,
shit on its haunches,
flies on its eyes,
who thinks, “If only
I’d been born
in India I’d be a god.”
And so, “The State of Poetry.” Looking out at this room full of people, I’d say that the state of poetry, the interest in poetry, is pretty healthy. The fact that we are here at a three day poetry festival speaks for itself. And so I really want to talk about poetry, not “the poetry business.” I warned Jennifer that I would do this. I hope you will also indulge me, because the fact is that I am the wrong person to give any advice about a career in poetry. I am not a successful poet, at least not in the usual sense. Like most poets, my books are published by a small press, seldom reviewed, and never in those few publications that seem to matter. You won’t find my work in anthologies or in discussions of contemporary poetry. This is not a complaint, only a way of offering you my credentials for NOT talking about a career in poetry: I don’t have one.
But I have a life that is largely made of poetry, of the poetry of others, both the dead and the living, and the poetry I try to write. I would not exchange that life, that ongoing education, that continual growth, for anything. Poetry returns to me the things I know and have forgotten, and among those things there dwells the deepest and oldest and least distorted version of myself: that consciousness that first looked for the right words, the right nouns, verbs, adjectives — the right sounds — to make sense of the world.
ALL the words that I utter,
And all the words that I write,
Must spread out their wings untiring,
And never rest in their flight,
Till they come where your sad, sad heart is,
And sing to you in the night.
–W. B. Yeats
I don’t quote these lines to suggest that poems are merely personal communications; they are that, at least often they are, but there is a larger social and political dimension to that intimate exchange. I believe it is this special kind of colloquy — one author to one reader, one heart and mind to another— that Czeslaw Milosz meant when he wrote that poetry is the last rampart against tyranny. It is this exchange that affirms us as individuals. In the words of Max Horkheimer, a German social critic of the 1930’s, later put to death by the Nazis: “To organize people as objects, you must first disorganize them as subjects.”
Another way of putting it is to think of the poet’s work as peeling people one at a time from the mob, steering them by the elbow to a table where, just the two of you, you find the radical quiet to honor that desire to be understood, that yearning to communicate one’s experience of being alive to another, which is the antidote to the massive, poisonous, ongoing objectification sweeping the planet today.
Poets are as archaic as candles to some people. Still, they’re useful when the power is out. Poetry is a handmade art, one that doesn’t require wealthy investors, costly materials, tools, and equipment. And so it has the potential, requiring no agreement from the powers-that-be, to say what must be said – to bring us back to the truth, to a consciousness of what we need, to those deep desires for justice and meaning, for respect and commonality, for freedom from debt, from the monomaniacal ideology that creates the plantation and calls it the world. I believe it can be the foundation for a real culture, an alternative to the pseudo-culture around us that is only a by-product of corporate profit-seeking.
Poetry is also a living tradition, a deep broad river of other human voices who have lived and thought about and felt life before us. An ongoing tradition that, if you are a poet, or a reader of poetry, you are a part of. It is full of agreements and arguments, celebrations and misgivings, blessings and curses and laments. It is a tradition that does not require belief, or ideological purity, or even reverence. Respect for its complexity and variety is all that is required, and that is only, after all, a respect for one’s own humanity, one’s own human potential to live life fully and fully aware. To drink from this river, whether as reader or writer, is to be refreshed by the reunion of head and heart, if only for one thirsty moment, and to be returned to a state of wholeness which we all feel was ours once as children when thought and feeling, mind and body, head and heart, did not feel separate, before the demands, legitimate and inexorable, of ego and socialization, required us to learn how to use first one then the other.
There are moments when I’m writing a poem — when a poem is coming to be on the page and I am trying to assist it — when the language, which has been evolving for millenia in order to better engage the complex world as it is, calls forth that part of me that has also been evolving for millenia in order to better engage the complex world as it is, and those moments are powerful, rejuvenating, and reassuring on the deepest level.
Poetry, both reading and writing it, can keep the spirit supple and viable in a time of rigidity and despair and helplessness, insisting on the importance and integrity of the individual consciousness in a time of mass delusions and sociopathic politics, clearing a little quiet space in the din for that singing in the night that I, for one, with my sad, sad heart, could not live without.