Monday, October 13, 2014

Review of Chief Modern Poets Of Britain And America

Someone recently asked me to tell them why I like poetry. Here is what I said. First, poems are not rhymes. Most people don’t know that. It took me a long time to understand. Poems can be rhythmic and musical, but they don’t have to be. At the end of that curve in my explanation is a sheer drop to an understanding about what poetry can become: it can become anything. Poetry is language loosed. It is the playground of language. It is everything that language can be, and everything it can never be. Poetry is language shattered, to be either recreated, or trampled in a “protest of life against reason.” Poetry can be highly dense and groping language that turns every object into a thought or a feeling—which is probably more faithful to human reality than detached descriptions. And, oh, the stinging freshness, the electric pulse  wakes something in the mind that went asleep. It can run along pretty placidly at times, then suddenly it shakes you. Then it ends as quickly as it began. The message is transmitted, and poem is over. It has said what it needed to say, and has left. No prosaic fortifications that leaves your reality untouched; or endless footnotes to keep you from reading and believing your own life above all. It’s the puzzle. The passion. The pure concentrate of questions and answers in varied blends. The deepest humanity can dive, with the most she can bring up in each hand.

If that is confusing, I usually knock on a skull with the reminder about songs: lyrics to songs are poetry. This usually does the trick, because even the most barbaric of unimaginative poetry-bashers can understand that lyrics from the likes of The Beatles or Sara Bareilles are moving (wide spectrum I know, but if you don’t get the point then you should just turn the volume up on your Katy Perry), even when read without music (though, no doubt, music is intentionally paired with lyrics in song to draw out flavor).

I loved taking a year to go through this book which contained thousands of English poems spanning back several hundred years. I was able to get a taste for who my favorite poets might be, and I took many hiatuses in order to read a complete book of poems by specific poets to get in deep before I moved on. Anyone who loves literature and poetry really needs to go through an anthology that gives you a taste of the different kinds of poetry, if for no other reason than to see how it has morphed and advanced over the centuries. There are so many new ways people have expressed creative thought, it is mind-blowing! And I’ll admit, I was completely lost on about a third of the poems included in this massive volume due to the experimentation and avant-garde flair of modern poets. I have strong feelings about obscurantism in poetry when it is published for the masses (i.e., it’s frustrating because it can be pedantic and high-browed), but because of the sheer mountains of the output of poets throughout the ages that appear unintelligible to the general reader, I’ve concluded that there is an essential drive in human nature to push the boundaries of what we know, and attempt to communicate the incommunicable, if even to those few whose understanding is fine-tuned enough to hear the more nuanced and delicate tones of meaning from the poets. Most of us are used to language that takes eons to evolve, word by word; but I imagine that some are dissecting and advancing language, on a personal level anyway, at a far more advanced rate, and those left behind are left to grumble about the poets’ obscurities. I believe this desire to ‘be’ and ‘say’ burdens the more advanced and keenly sensitive minds which are very alone in their engagement with truths that would crush the mind and spirit of the average person. Maybe there is a reason it must be incomprehensible and confounding to the light reader—one who isn’t invested in the investigation and consequent agony of the poet who has touched truth that could strike a man dead with its earth-shattering import.

I, for one, and thankful to have the fruit of genius right in front of me, to catch what I can and grow how I can through pressure of hard-thought and excelled maturation; rather than not knowing what is out there and not caring because I feel threatened by what flies over my head. If it’s easy, it’s old. Hear that. I’m reminded of one of the last poems I read by Richard Wilbur in which a ‘hero’ (in the present case, a poet of course) is not appreciated by his peers for pioneering a higher plane of thought and existence.

Pardon him,
…for it is he  
Devours death, mocks mutability,
Has heart to make an end, keeps nature new.

Thinking of Noah, childheart, try to forget  
How for so many bedlam hours his saw  
Soured the song of birds with its wheezy gnaw,  
And the slam of his hammer all the day beset

The people’s ears…

Forgive the hero, you who would have died  
Gladly with all you knew
(From Still, Citizen Sparrow by Richard Wilbur)

Very simply put, I feel so much comfort reading the thoughts of others who are brave, and honest, and creative. It feels like I’m not alone. NOT that I’m all of those things all the time, but it makes me remember it’s okay to try to be more brave. There are people there already, people who have tried new things and spoke new words and sailed into uncharted territories and tried to tell their stories in broken words. Even with the more obscure poems, it can be such a good feeling to pick up on something brand-new, even if receiving only a glimmer of meaning, and feel something change inside merely for having read it. The joy of revelation that I have gathered from so many of these poems has stayed with me for days, sometimes weeks…simply for reading a beautiful and courageous thought. I deeply enjoy the “heavenly fellowship of men who perish” (Wallace Stevens).

A few of my favorites in random order: Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, D.H. Lawrence, Ted Hughes, Richard Wilbur, T.S. Eliot, Robinson Jeffers, Karl Shapiro, Emily Dickenson, Wallace Stephens, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carl Sandburg, W.H. Auden, Sylvia Plath, and William Carlos Williams.

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Being the poet that I am, I offer one of my latest poems, dedicated to the poets who have taught me to live with the boldness of a revelation, as an epiphany on earth; who convinced me of the worth of every word spoke, and that each word is original as the life that spoke it. No old word was ever spoken.

No old word was ever spoken.
Every word is newly minted from the mouth.

No old word was ever spoken.
New spite for old stings.
Spit to polish tradition’s rings.
Sounded-Soul’s returning pings.
New-knit versions of people and things.

No old word was ever spoken.
Don’t believe the lie
That a dead dictionary is a clue to you.
No lexicon has the slightest idea what the hell you mean.
The British Library,
Library of Congress,
Russian State Library,
National Diet Library,
Toronto Public Library,
National Library of China,
Bibliotheca Alexandrina,
And the Harvard University Library
All wait breathlessly for your most casual, verbal slip
To add to their paper tombs.
iPads and Google central would short circuit, would blow their brains
On trying to compute the long eternity of work
That went into coming up with your premier use of
‘The’ and ‘and’.

No old word was ever spoken.
You, sir, madam, are not a redundancy.
You are not a hiccup.
You are not a glitch.
You are not something to be looked up in Wikipedia.
One should blush with abject shame for ever accepting
That you are just another thing that happened,
That your words are best understood in light of anything but your own prototypal self,
That your birth is just another smudge on a certificate,
Chicken-scratch in histories and family trees,
A date, or time, or place.

No old word was ever spoken.
I caught myself writing this with a sneer on my face,
An apology and confession for ever having allowed
The thought to enter my skull
That any word has been heard before.
When I think I hear an old word,
I suppose I’m just tired,
And want to be through with it all;
Through with new words
And the daily recrudescence of life and movement and sound;
Through with stimulations and meanings that complicate my own desire
To be through with it all,
And just hear, for once,
An old, dead word.
If you think you hear an old word,
Listen for your prayer that is catching, sifting,
And translating all the new words into a simple plea of
“Dear God, make it stop.”

Still, even after you’re dead and deaf like you wanted,
No old word will ever be spoken.