I just discovered that one of my poems is now available in the Fall 2009 issue of PoetryBay Online. This issue is loaded with good poems from wonderful poets from the Pacific University MFA program — like my illustrious colleague and alumna pal Michelle Bitting, the ever-stunning Ellen Bass, tough-and-tender Dorianne Laux, and my esteemed former faculty advisers Joe Millar and Marvin Bell. Not to mention Robert Bly, Kim Stafford, Lyn Lifshin, and Nick Carbó — the list goes on. As online journals go, this one is a heavyweight, and I feel lucky to appear in such good company. Enjoy!
“In art, you’re free.”
One of the delights of my web presence is that I sometimes get emails from writers and readers fairly new to poetry. Recently, a young marketing executive in Singapore wrote to me. In our most recent exchange, he rightly points out that, especially in the US, there seem to be countless poets, poetry awards, and poets with awards. How, then, do we define great poets or poetry? He gave me permission to answer publicly, on this site.
In doing so, I first have to admit that I do not feel qualified in any way to define great poets or poetry. I can really only comment on the poets and poems that are great within me. I have been giving this some thought, and have identified a few common characteristics.
After hearing Marvin Bell read last night, I realize my assertion that he could levitate a space ship with his mind was somewhat understated. In fact, some might be downright confused by me comparing him to Yoda: is he green? does he have pointy ears? Not to my knowledge. He does invert syntax to bring pressure and rhythm to language — but, unlike Yoda, in doing so, Marvin remains grammatically correct.
There really are two aspects of Yoda that remind me of Bell. First, Yoda is a master teacher of an unteachable magic called the force. Second, and most importantly, in Episode II (the fifth film ever made) George Lucas gave every Star Wars junkie what they had long craved: the opportunity to see Yoda wield a light saber himself. With blinding alacrity and consummate skill, Yoda shows himself not only as a master teacher, but master practitioner. After Marvin’s poetry reading last night, a fellow student leaned over to me in the darkened theater and whispered, “he’s a genius.” Having spent last semester studying with him, I wanted to whisper back, “well, duh.”
“Genius in the arts consists of getting in touch with your own wiring.”
Joseph Millar and Marvin Bell, both former faculty advisors during my study at Pacific, conducted a roundtable discussion around the theme of what writing poetry teaches one about poetry itself. At the forefront of their message was: write! As in, do it.
They focused on the necessity of the process to their lives (not the product) — the quality of humility necessary when coaxing out new work (Millar), and the freedom necessary to write long enough, and bad enough, to get better (Bell).
In this sense, Marvin’s admonition that poetry is a way of life, not a career, and Joe’s analogy that keeping on writing limbers one’s muscles to be flexible and receptive to the dance, renders complimentary angles to a simple but profound message: writing is about writing. Talk is talk. Publication is nice; a fleeting pleasure. Writing.
Hearing about the importance of process, and the transitory pleasure of product, reminded me once again of this great little animation of a recording by Alan Watts.
I value concision. I have told myself this value is the reason that I often prefer shorter poems. And I have told myself this preference is the reason that I have tended to write poems under one page (~40 lines) in length. All that, however, is changing.
I now recognize that in my work I have had a tendency to want to end a poem after delivering a few good lines, to “look ahead” to the conclusion and shape the direction toward that end. Reading Marvin Bell’s “Dead Man” poems, which always appear in two parts, helped me recognize just how much can still be said even after the conclusion of the first part of a poem. In some ways, every poem could be said to be just the first part of a poem on that topic.
Reading other longer works has also helped me understand how I might go about resisting conclusions in the effort at arriving in more interesting poetic territory. Being halfway through my third semester in the Pacific University MFA program, I have now read over fifty books of poetry and poetry criticism in the last fifteen months of study. I have learned a lot. Perhaps more importantly, I have absorbed a lot, imbibing poetry as much as analyzing it, and letting it shape my aesthetics from the inside out.
Most recently, I have been reading David St. John’s Study For The World’s Body. I am struck by the success of his longer poems. Comparing his work to another poet whose longer poems I also admire, Li-Young Lee, has helped me to understand some of the qualities of longer poems which I hope to deploy in my own efforts at breaking the single-page barrier.
Foremost among them seems to be a tone that reflects confidence. This sense of confidence about the speaker, and by inference the author, helps me as a reader to give the author permission to dwell on unfolding details, provided they remain grounded in concrete images, interesting language, music, or other elements of good craft. Careful examination of details in this way produces the actual poetry, and gives a sense of focus and precision to the work, despite its length.
The stand-up comedian Billy Connolly is a master at delivering humor through seemingly endless digressions. When he finally comes back to the main topic, long since forgotten in the audience’s mind, he earns not only laughs but trust that he knew what he was doing all along. Good long poems can also function in this way — taking time to deliver poetry through the details, but retaining a sense of focus and direction all along.
In some ways, it seems to me that longer poems do not necessarily have to end on lines as spectacular as those required for the success of shorter poems. A rider who has hung on to a bucking stallion with dignity and tenacity need not necessarily dismount with great flourish to win cheers. The sustained quality and duration of the work is a feat in itself. Such feats I look forward to attempting in practice soon.
After his craft talk this morning, I am convinced that, if he wanted to, Marvin Bell could levitate a space ship with his mind. He used the alphabet (why not?) as a framework for rattling off his abecedarian thoughts on poetry, nugget after nugget of invigorating advice interspersed with his own quirky humor. He read two poems that had nothing to do with the basics of successful lyric poetry — image, language, attention to specific detail and scene — and everything to do with transmitting poignant sentiment through casual tone and nuanced observation. He described them as “poems which don’t care if you think that they are poems.” By that time, we had reached the letter “B.” What followed were twenty-four equally subversive, insightful forays — all told with a twinkle in the eye. Having him act as my faculty advisor in the coming semester is nothing short of a privilege.