Thursday, January 11, 2007

On Being a Poet

Maybe some of you have the same problem I have. What does it mean to be a poet in 2007? Of course, it's the same dumb question we probably had in 1978 but I'd like to think about it a little. Poets are really marginalized nincompoops. Even the best of the them or the most famous dwell in a world that most normal people could care less about. We spend our time writing poems that we hope will be important, or change peoples minds or whatever the fuck each of us thinks poetry can do but the simple fact is most people in the US of A could give a rats ass about poetry.
They read it in high school cuz they had to. Maybe they wrote some poetry when they were young and full of passion but then they got jobs and went to work and poetry receded into the background. Some of us continue to write and sweat shit about readings or getting our ditties published or our books or whether we're any good at all. We get almost zero feedback except in small groups from other nincompoops just like ourselves.
So why do we do it? We may be the most marginalized art form in America outside of quilting but at least quilts cost a bunch of dough.
So what should this shit do? Why do we write it? What does it matter if it's good or bad or indifferent? Why go to grad school or take workshops or have conferences with teachers of poetry? What do we want to happen next? I have book of poetry I'm proud of but quite honestly it might as well be a math textbook written in 1958. With the exception that at least a bunch of kids in 1958 had to read the math textbook.
We all admire or find work we find of value. It makes us feel in a way that no other art form makes us feel. It is exciting and vibrant and real but no one and I repeat no one but us reads it. It's like being a jazz musician in a country where no one listens to music.
I think we all want to change this. I look at efforts like the Dodge Festival or the National Book Foundation or the thousands of websites devoted to poetry or the even more numerous university and small presses committed to the art and I see a real desire by poets to be heard and read but it seems to be read and heard only by other poets.
I read my poetry out loud and the only people in the audience are other poets waiting to read in the open. This sucks.
Poetry can be more. I'd like to see more poets more actively involved in making poetry a living art form. That doesn't mean just hip hop for the kids or a festival or what ever the fuck people come up with. It means a conscientious effort by poets to encourage people to hear and read good writing. This kind of means submerging your own desires for some marginal fame to a greater goal.
I think people love poetry when they hear it out loud. I think they like poetry when it's clear and part of their lives. I think poetry got involved in an argument back in the 30's about the bourgeousie and the common people and that it lost its way. I think that for a couple minutes in the sixties and seventies it seemed poised to be a real art form again but sank under the weight of ego.
Poets don't always give a fuck about anything but themselves. This is nonsense. Who cares about your stupid problems or your ride to work or your backyard. Quite honestly, who really thinks that a poem ranting about George Bush is going to have more effect than organizing a real political movement against his imperial presidency? Poetry can galvanize societies that are oppressed and marginalized but in the USof A that is not the case for the bulk of the poets going for MFA's. They are comfortable middle class folks talking about their comfortable middle class political opinions. Do that at the polls. Register to vote. Vote often. Go to town hall.
Your poems should be real and true and dare I say it? Engaging. Like a novel. Like a great painting or movie. Find a way to make poetry part of regular life. Read in your town at the local library. Read poems you didn't write but that you love. Encourage people to read work you love. Don't read your work out loud unless it's good or unless you're in an arena where that's the point. Don't bore people. Leave them wanting more. Be a savant. Be a prophet. Be a savior. Be a sinner. But please don't be dull and pedestrian.
Think of Larkin's poem about his parents. Any chump on the planet can appreciate that. He's bare and naked and angry but anyone can get what he's talking about. "Whose woods these are I think I know"...everybody in New Hampshire or Vermont or Maine knew just what the fuck Frost was talking about. He wasn't talking down to people or lecturing them or hectoring them. He was giving them a place of their own.
Well, that's it for tonight.
Here's one more from Mario

Mario Discusses the Roots of Information

I’ve been in the bar for several hours.
It’s late afternoon, mid-winter.
The streets are slush filled.
The sidewalks are mountains of blackened snow run through with dog shit,
old banana peels, tissues, and slack, used condoms.
Some ugly, arctic decay.
Mario comes in.
As usual I’m not expecting him.
I smell his Pall Mall before I hear him.
Mario Infirme says, “Don’t shit where you eat”.
I say, “huh?”
I say, “I’d never shit where I eat.”
He says, “everyone says they don’t but everybody does.”

He says, “I know because I spend days sifting through their shit.
Reading it like turgid tea leaves.
Breathing deep, clearing the mind, till I can understand its secrets.
Because everybody’s business is my business…our business; as it should be.
He says that everyone’s shit is a little different but in the end,
shit is shit.”
“Like you,” he says.
“That broad at the blood bank in ’79 or your cleaning lady in ’88.
You might not shit where you eat now but you did once upon a time.
You will again.”

“Your shit is a river that runs to your heart.
Once I read your shit I know your heart.
Once I know your heart I know you.
Once I know you I own you.
Ask Hoover.
Ask Kennedy .
Ask any Tom, Dick, or Harry.
Ask your brother.
Ask your priest.
Ask the guy selling dirty kebabs on the corner.
Ask that fool.
Ask the first Bush or the second.
Nobody’s shit doesn’t stink.
That family has shit that reeks to heaven but just because it reeks
doesn’t mean it can’t have purpose.

That’s my job.
Making something out of it.
I’ve watched men shit their pants just listening while I told them.
It’s a gift.
Telling men stories about their own shit.
You should try it once in a while.”

He stubs out his cigarette, drains his whiskey, and walks like a ghost into the twilight.

Hope you like it. Sleep tight. Pray for our boys on all the shores they guard. Pray for your family and friends. Enjoy this life you've been will end soon enough:)

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