#thestack (IV) (which is to say: four)

You probably ought to read the first post “#thestack” before this one.

I read almost the entire fourth issue in the stack – the now-faded purple and neon-green November/December 2004 issue with John Ashbery’s wide-eyed spooky face on it – while I sat in the garden at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, waiting on my children who were seeing “Mary Poppins.” A friend gave us two tickets he couldn’t use, and rather than choose which child to take, I gave them each a ticket and told them I’d wait outside. I hadn’t realized that the show’s runtime was nearly three hours, so I had a lot of time to kill. It was a humid Sunday afternoon in early July, and twice, the sky darkened, rumbled, then showered, causing me to retreat into the mosquito-infested straw-roofed hut in the middle of the small garden.

When I sat down with this issue of American Poetry Review, I had already done my browsing. This copy of APR interested me particularly, because I’ve been fascinated by Ashbery’s somewhat quizzical facial expression. Moreover, something prompted one of my students to ink a Salvador Dali mustache and a few chin whiskers onto his face, making the image less odd and more comical with the addition of that age-old high-school prank.

However, Ashbery wasn’t the only prominent poet featured in this issue. Jane Kenyon figured in heavily, too. In addition to being a poet of some repute, Kenyon, the much-younger wife of poet Donald Hall, died of leukemia in her forties in 1995, and this 2005 issue contained two tenth-anniversary tributes. Though I had heard of Jane Kenyon, I wasn’t familiar with her poetry, so these essays about her last days – one by widower Hall and another by Liam Rector, a friend of the couple and the founder of the writing program at Bennington – were my introduction to her life and work. Sitting in the hot Alabama sun on a summer Sunday afternoon, reading about a deceased poet – and wife, and friend – was an odd place to do this, but I found myself pulled in to the deeply sentimental narratives about her illness, death, and legacy.

While Donald Hall’s memorial to his late wife was full of the minute details of her passing that brought it into concrete reality for someone who wasn’t there, Liam Rector’s was more accessible to me, as someone with little knowledge of Jane Kenyon’s work. Rector alluded in the first column to the “luminous particular,” a lovely phrase, the idea of which he described as “TS Eliot’s objective correlative meets James Wright’s deep image and imagines, notates, and produce an experience in and of itself.” But it was another discussion of students and “masters” that Rector wrote about, which grabbed me as a teacher:

Students often balk at the idea of a “master.” They assume one must be a slave in response. But the role of master to apprentice has been an old and venerable one in literature, and it has been a passage through which most of the strong poets I know have passed many times, with many masters, as a kind of variant of serial monogamy.

Many teachers ask questions of their students, but not many teachers are able to withstand, and indeed modulate a silence when no answer from students is immediately forthcoming.

There are two ideas here: one comments on the wisdom of yielding to instruction or training from a more experienced mentor; the other remarks on a rare ability in few teachers to allow students to be students, to fumble and wonder and knit their brows, to swim around in not-knowing . . . in order to learn that they don’t know. Kenyon, Rector wrote, was one of those rare teachers.

Though I started at the end this time, the issue began with John Ashbery, first with a couple of pages of his poems, which were followed by two pages of Michael McClure poems titled “Suite for John Ashbery.” (I was glad to see McClure, one of the Beat poets I like, and because he had a very smiley author photo!) The first three of Ashbery’s eight were  prose poems – I use that term to describe rather than classify them – with a structure built on paragraph-like stanzas. Among Ashbery’s phrases, I particularly liked the section in “Where Shall I Wander” that read “Alas for our foreshadowing, / for though we wander like lilies there are none that can placate us, or not at this time.” And in the third of the prose poems, I learned another new word: ataxically.

I first became familiar with John Ashbery’s poetry when my wife’s stepsister came home from New York City for Christmas, quite a few years back, and gave me a copy of A Wave. From it, I teach the poem “Landscape (After Baudelaire).” After reading the ones published here, I might take another look at “Capital O” when it comes time to teach poetry this fall.

Continuing to flip through, there was Martha Ronk, who looked like she had the flu, followed by a long essay by Charles Dickens about “Philadelphia, and Its Solitary Prison.” I’ll confess freely that, between the heat of the summer afternoon, the heaviness of reading about a brilliant poet who died too soon, and the dour-ness of Ronk’s expression and Dickens’ subject, I didn’t really give either more than a quick glance. By that point in the afternoon, I was checking my watch often and was mainly trying to stay engaged to pass time more quickly. I read and liked Minnie Bruce Pratt’s poem “The Unemployment Office: Dismissed by the Machine,” then skipped James McConkey’s essay “The Telescope in the Parlor,” did some perfunctory browsing among Jean Follain’s fifty-nine poems in the Supplement section, and read parts of Derek Walcott’s “two excerpts from The Prodigal.” From Walcott, I learned another new word – aureate – and found this passage that I liked:

Along the smouldering autumnal sidewalks,
the secretive coffee-shops, bright flower stalls,
wandering the Village in search of another subject
other than yourself, it is yourself you meet.

Though I’ve only ever been to Greenwich Village once, I knew exactly what he meant.

As the afternoon wore on and it got closer to dinnertime, I moved into the shade of a patio near the theater building, at least partially hoping that the show might let out a little early. And that’s when I found Lucia Perillo’s essay “Fear of the Marketplace.” Frankly, I was pretty burned out with reading, but when I realized that it was about one of my favorite subjects – poetry’s seeming inability to connect with modern audiences – I had to read it, and that sentiment was urged forward when I saw that she had block-quoted one of my favorite poems, the only poem I have memorized: “so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow . . . ”

Perillo’s two-and-a-half page essay began by invoking her squalid fear of selling, which began for her as a Girl Scout, then she quickly moved on to that god-awful feeling that most published writers know: I’ve got this book, and now I have to convince people to buy it. Not just read it— buy it. There’s a heavy expectation that we will give them away – to friends, to other writers, etc. – because certainly we want people to read our books. That’d be wonderful. But to do that, they have to buy them. Herein lies the rub:

. . . what has lost its cultural worth is the kind of print- and page-directed arrangement of words that expects a sustained engagement from its readers.

Yes, poetry requires a reader to stop everything else and pay attention. Therefore:

If looked at without any romantic attachments to the art, one might say that this kind of poetry has a negative value in the esteem of most citizens. Were even the most idiotic reality TV show to be interrupted by a public broadcast of TS Eliot reading “The Waste Land” (recently voted [by poets] the greatest poem in English of the last century) mayhem would ensue.

She’s right. Hundreds of thousands of people will watch basketball players’ wives act ugly to each other week after week, but those same people wouldn’t dream of giving fifteen minutes of undivided attention to even the best of poems.

Why? Perillo offered quite a few ideas. One, “our culture has lots its habit of respecting graceful instances of speech.” Amen. Two, “poets are an insular tribe.” Amen. Three, “if we’re to continue in our work we’ve got to convince ourselves there is some sort of value attached to it.” Amen.

Perillo then asked the tough question:”what if poetry really is something most people don’t want— what if they’d rather see advertisements for products they might use instead of the poems that civic arts organizations are always trying to foist on them on the city bus?” It’s a legitimate thing to ask, considering the near-total absence of poetry from our mainstream culture today. By the end, Perillo, who still has books to sell, has to acknowledge the difficult truth: booksellers won’t stock a book that isn’t in the system, and other poets (perhaps a poet’s only readers) expect copies for free. Plain and simple, selling poetry is a real bitch.

By the time my children got out of the show, I was hot and tired and ready to go home. When the doors opened and the crowds trickled out, I was reading poems by Leonard Gontarek, whose author picture was taken in front of a graffiti-covered dumpster for some reason. Unfortunately, I didn’t ever read Elizabeth Alexander’s one short poem in the issue. I remembered her from Barack Obama’s inauguration and had intended to see what she had there.

Interestingly, on the day after I had sat and read in the Shakespearean garden, The New York Times ran an opinion piece called “Understanding Poetry Is More Straightforward Than You Think.” First one friend then another tweeted out a link to it, then I saw it on Facebook, too. I’ve been sifting through these issues of American Poetry Review, running into quite a few poems that I don’t get, and the title caught my attention. Maybe I could learn something. The author, Matthew Zapruder, began:

Do you remember, as I do, how in the classroom poems were so often taught as if they were riddles? What is the poet really trying to say here? What is the theme or message of this poem?

Then he goes on to relay what I’ve said to so many students: Focus on the text itself. Know that the language is meant to add beauty and meaning, not to trip you up. Look at what the words say— all of the things I’ve been doing myself in reading these magazines. And many of the poems I still don’t get.

But it doesn’t bother so much because I know now what I didn’t know as a student. Though I don’t want to be wrong, certainly, I no longer feel a duty to the poet to receive the message he or she intended. If you ask me, literary works are like children in that we create them, form them, nurture them, and send them out into the world, and nobody looks a child and asks, what were the parents really trying to do here? No, the poem must stand on its own and can’t be followed around by the poet, no matter how badly he or she wants to be understood.

In one of these issues of APR, I read that a person who loves words may well have some success as a poet, though a person who writes poems to be understood likely will fail at both writing poems and being understood. I read poems to get out of them what I intend to get out of them, which is what a reader should do. My attitude: if the poet has done his or her job, then I will get what he or she intended for me to get. I don’t read poems for the poet’s benefit; I read them for mine.

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