Preview of a Coming Attraction

I was pleased to discover that an essay of mine (“The Poet’s Audience: Part Two”) was posted on WordPress Reader (between an article on Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, adapted by Showtime–about her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe–and the “playful foreignisation” of Peter Manson’s English in Mallarme), along with a photo of the first reading I gave in Monterey (when we returned to California and I published the book Pacific Grove in 1974). Consequently, I seem to have gathered some “traffic” for my blog (71 “views” between August 24 and August 31, from the U.S., United Kingdom, Japan, Netherlands, France, New Zealand, Botswana, and Germany). Thanks everyone!

I don’t know how many people might be able to make the trek from New Zealand or Botswana, but on Sunday, September 13 (2:00 PM), I will be giving a reading from Gypsy Wisdom: New and Selected Poems at Old Capitol Books in Monterey (559 Tyler Street). I will be reading with an excellent poet from Santa Cruz, California with whom I’ve had the pleasure to read before: Maggie Paul.

Maggie is the author of Borrowed World, a collection of poems published by Hummingbird Press, and the chapbook Stones from the Basket of Others (Black Dirt Press). She earned an MA at Tufts University and her MFA at Vermont College. At present, she teaches writing at Cabrillo College and works as an educational consultant.

Here’s a photo of Maggie Paul, the entrance to Old Capitol Books in Monterey, and me:

Maggie Paul   Maggie Paul at Old Capitol Books   Author Book Launch

Bob Danziger has posted the first review of Gypsy Wisdom: New & Selected Poems on the book’s amazon.com site. I am grateful to this fine writer (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Energy Independence; Steinbeck and the Sounds of the Filipino American Experience; for the National Steinbeck Center Exhibition “Filipino Voices Past and Present”; Japantown in Chinatown; for the National Steinbeck Center Exhibition “Japanese History in Salinas Chinatown”) and Musician, Composer, Arranger (Brandenburg 300 Project: “jazz-classical crossover version of the Brandenburg Concertos using instruments and recording techniques not available in Bach’s time.”). Here’s the review:

“DEEPLY TOUCHING

William Minor communicates. Poet, journalist, painter, musician, composer, translator, producer, teacher and performer, he shares his deeply lived life through all of these mediums. He wears each comfortably, letting the extraordinary experiences and earned insights be the events they are without the ego assumptions many artists need to sustain themselves … The latest in a long line of my favorite works by William Minor (Love Letters of Lynchburg, Unzipped Souls, Some Grand Dust, Monterey Jazz Festival; Forty Legendary Years), GYPSY WISDOM reflects William Minor’s thoughts as he takes his place as senior member of Monterey’s corps of great artists.

You must feel this:
‘From the whole divided heart
(the only kind we mortals can possess)
the sound of recognition and love
emerging from pressed fingers.’

And from the translation of an Osip Mandelstam poem (in my opinion a translation of absolute genius):
‘No, never was I anyone’s contemporary . . .
A hundred years ago, on a rough cot
with soft white pillows, this age of clay awoke …
What a vulnerable bed that was, if you
contemplate the slow creaking trek of time.
But what of it? We cannot invent a substitute era.
We must age in this one as best we can …’”

We had a Book Launch for Gypsy Wisdom: New & Selected Poems on July 25 at the Museum of Monterey. Vocalist Jaqui Hope offered poems I’d set to original music (with Heath Proskin on bass and me on piano). Unfortunately, the “troupe” is not available for September 13, so I’m going to go my portion of the reading alone—even to the point of singing some of the song/poems myself. In 2002, Mac McDonald reviewed a CD on which I sang (Bill Minor & Friends: For Women Missing or Dead, Poems Set to Music), and Mac said I was “a skillful pianist … with a pleasant [italics mine] voice.”

I will do my best, on September 13, to make that voice as pleasant as possible—accompanying myself on my faithful Yamaha, and reading other pieces from Gypsy Wisdom: New & Selected Poems. The book can be found for sale at: amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/Gypsy-Wisdom-New-Selected Poems/dp/1935530976/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1438124136&sr=1-1&keywords=gypsy+wisdom+new+%26+selected+poems+by+william+minor) –and also, locally, at Old Capitol Books and at the Gift Shop in the Museum of Monterey (5 Custom House Plaza, next to the wharf).

It will be wonderful giving a reading in the company of Maggie Paul again, so I hope that those of you who can make it will come hear us at Old Capitol Books. Just to flesh out the invitation I will include, here: the cover of Gypsy Wisdom, the flyer I sent out for the event, and a repeat of the (distant in time) photo taken in 1974.

Gypsy Wisdom Final Cover  Maggie Paul and William MInor Flyer  Bill First Readin in PG 2

 

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The Poet’s Audience: Part Two

Taking up where we left off on the last blog: If an audience for poetry—one with the genuine, rich, surprised appreciation of Osip Mandelstam’s “secret addressee”–could be found in the present, within a poet’s lifetime—wouldn’t that be wonderful?! YES! Let’s explore just how such a fortunate state might take place.

If the words of poetry are themselves a response to what is (where we left off), “homologizing the personal and the universal” (in Joseph Campbell’s words), a too strict definition (Coleridge’s “best words in the best order” or Stevens’ “A revelation in words by means of words”), does tend to look cold, stiff, pale, even a bit silly–although, in the case of Stevens we may wish to hold on to that word “revelation,” to tuck it away for future reference. Paul Valery spoke of “an indefinable harmony” between what poetry says and what it is. “The impossibility of defining the relation, together with the impossibility of denying it, constitutes the essence of the poetic line.”

And makes it come alive, I’d say. Whatever poetry says it says precisely because of what it is: the necessity of the rite of making it. “I know that the Man’s Execution is as his Conception and no Better,” William Blake cried, because he knew his conception was damned good, even though his “audience” (such as it was) failed to appreciate, much less understand, his execution. “As the Eye such the Object … As a man is so he Sees.”

George Santayana complained that American poets were not interested in what they were and what they did and what they saw, but concerned only with what they thought they would like to be and do and see. “It is a misguided ambition, ” he said, “and moreover, if realized, fatal.” What the poet must bring to the rite of poetry is a genuine inner and outer nature, a vision (however large or small it may be), her or his own “revelation.” Yet a vision, unfortunately, does not guarantee good poetry (any more than free “expression” does), even though there is little or no poetry without it. Mark Twain made the cruel statement that the worst advice you can give some people is to tell them to be themselves. Yet few poets, being themselves, would deny the power of their rite and, as I’ve suggested, poetry obviously does take “hold” of people on occasion, creating an “audience.” Which brings us back to them and the message in the bottle–its effect on them, the “chosen ones.” A genuine vision and the “best words” are superimposed (a “revelation in words”) when and if this happens. When and if found by an audience.

Each person has his or her own favorite stories of “first experiences” with poetry–and each person loves to recount them. One of the first poems to “take hold” of me was T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” I recall my mid-Fifties art school roommate in Brooklyn hounding me for the significance of “death’s other Kingdom.” I didn’t really give a damn about “death’s other Kingdom,” for I was too busy, too obsessed with “rat’s feet over broken glass/in our dry cellar”–probably because of the somewhat stark condition of our cold-water flat in the Brooklyn slum clearance zone in which we lived. I also recall an evening when my roommate went off on a date, decked out in a checkered coat, checkered shirt and spotted tie, his hair rumpled, his face sporting an uncustomary cheeky pout. After he’d gone I noticed The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas lying on his desk, opened it, and was struck by a photograph of Thomas (checkered coat, checkered shirt and spotted tie, his hair rumpled, etc.).

Picking up and reading the book, I too was thrilled by such lines as “I see the boys of summer in their ruin,” “I, in my intricate image,” and “If I were tickled by the rub of love”–phrases that reverberated in my just-post-adolescent body, mind, and heart. There were other poets as well: e.e. cummings with “0 It’s Nice To Get Up In, the slipshod mucous Kiss” or “I like my body when it is with your/body. It is so quite new a thing,” because, a Catholic late bloomer, I had just discovered the overt joy of, for me, a “quite new” thing: earthly activity rather than contemplatio, innocent pleasures (in retrospect) that would cure me of any lingering inclination I might have in the direction of becoming a Trappist monk. I recall, vividly, standing by the ocean, reciting Hart Crane’s “there is a line/You must not cross” and “The bottom of the sea is cruel, ” waiting for the stunning girl I was in love with to come out of the bathhouse, the same girl who gave me her copy of the Modern Library Comprehensive Anthology of American Poetry, (which she’d bought for $1.40 in Syracuse, New York, her home town), and inscribed in it: “a hand-me-down, to Bill. To fill up some windy spaces … a better friend I couldn’t ask for.” (I have a feeling, now, that she might have been referring to the book as the “better friend,” not me).

Those poems did become best friends, and shaped my taste: Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Trumbell Stickney’s fine “In Ampezzo,” Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Eros Turannos,” Robert Frost’s “To Earthward,” Wallace Steven’s “Le Monicle de Mon Oncle,” Ezra Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed,” Hart Crane’s “Voyages”–and “Mentreche il Vento, Come Fa, Si Tace” (addressed to “Ruth of sweet wind”: “Will you perhaps consent to be/My many-branched, small and dearest tree?”) by Delmore Schwartz.

More than “relevance” (that buzz word of late Sixties education) was involved here. Such lines were not touchstones. They were not, even though I was fascinated by the craft and skill involved in the “art” of making them at the time, examples of excellent technique. They were living truths, essential articulations. “So very manifest, the incomprehensible,” the Greek poet Odysseus Elytis has written, and poetry for me then–and now–is just that. I discovered that poetry was much more than memorable lines or some architectural complex composed of living words that had miraculously taken up residence in whatever was being described. I discovered that poems had lives: actual lives of their own.

And I found myself thrilled by the individuals who had given birth to poems I came to love: Francois Villon, John Donne, Robert Burns, William Blake, John Keats–poets who had turned their own lives into something of universal interest and value: true miracle workers, “deathless” bards. How had they done that? Had they rehearsed and then auditioned for such a role? What made them so special?

At the time few people (aside from my girlfriend) seemed to care much about my own life, and certainly not the poems I’d just begun to write (mostly weak imitations!). I’m not sure all that many people really care now! So why and how had these remarkable poets and their poems survived? What “kept them going”? Was it some reverence for life that carried them through, some indefinable harmony with all that is? No, that was not the case with Burns and Villon, who’d had a hard enough time with “all that is” throughout their lives, even though they’d extracted much from their extraordinary and painful existences (I loved Villon’s “last words,” in lieu of a confession, before he thought he would be hanged: “My head is about to find out how much my ass weighs”). The only conclusion I could reach was: like myths, certain individuals tend and deserve to abide forever—through words!. Like best friends, I suppose, fully residing in their own, and our, lives. Few of these poets had overtly “courted” an audience. Burns in fact had lost his while alive. And at times Blake seemed to do just about everything in his power to prove himself “alien,” at odds with the world (“O why was I born with a different face? Why was I not born like the rest of my race?” I loved those lines too!) . And popularity may have been the undoing of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Osip Mandelstam believed that fear of a concrete audience, of an epoch’s listener, had pursued poets in all ages. “The more gifted the poet, the more acutely has he suffered from this fear.” In spite of the temptation that adulation or willful obscurity hold, the true poet tends to stick to that indefinable reciprocity that resides at the core of his art: the act, the response, the rite that celebrates–with whatever degree of pleasure or pain–everything! It’s a big order, but the genuine poet has to write, has to carry out this task, come what may.

Speaking of the Brahminic vision of the Vedic Hymns, Joseph Campbell says that they may not be merely a product of man’s thought and action but “one of the fundamental factors of the universe … potent, creative, eternal syllables” that antecede both gods and the world. And so,I feel, is poetry. Yet has poetry in general–that is, poetry intended for a specific epoch’s audience, our era–grown up and out of this primal state, leaving reverence, magic perhaps, even surprise and wonder far behind? Much of it has been lost, perhaps. But the best poets, I believe, refuse to let that happen. That refusal, I feel, is the source of their power. It’s the force that compels us to hide such stuff in bottles that get washed up on the shore or bedroom drawers in Amherst or steam trunks in Voronezh (where Mandelstam was confined, in exile). It’s that force that allowed some kid (me) standing on the muddy edge of the Atlantic Ocean–in love with a tall, lithe, beautiful girl with the “Proper Name for a Sacred Being”–to experience more than the already known, that let him know that the incomprehensible can be made manifest; and I am grateful for the opportunity. And for poetry.

Again, how amazing that Mandelstam, who epitomizes the old (medieval) poetic virtue of anonymous authorship (having had it forced upon him by Stalin) should now emerge as a Hero with a name. “The hieratic, that is, sacred nature of poetry is due to the fact that man is harder than anything else on earth,” he wrote, in a time that was not easy. Poetry deals with such essential but too often forgotten or ignored values and, if and when we remember, we tend to remember large. And personally. The Native American poet believed his song was truly his own. No other person could or should sing it without his permission. His song reeked of what we today call “voice.” Origination and performance merged, and in the very mood from which they proceeded. Everything merges–both word and object–in poetry. “To sing another’s song is an invasion of his personality, a sort of spiritual piracy involving sacrilege.” But not to listen.

Back to the sacramental nature of poetry. Robert Frost has written about the difference between just stringing words together and “sentence sound.” The former relates to tying clothes together by the sleeves and stretching them without a line between two trees. “It is bad for the clothes,” Frost says. A poet, on the other hand, has strung all of his words on definite “recognizable sentence sounds”—that is, her or his own sounds, own world of rhythm and timbre (temperament?), own vision and voice, her or his own (to use Wallace Stevens’ word again) “revelation.”

So, where then does the audience fit in? Performing at the Monterey Jazz Festival, Miles Davis preferred to “go on first.” Other performers wished, for reasons of ego, to appear last, hoping to make a “lasting impression,” but Davis said he wanted “them fresh ears.” Poets too crave fresh ears other than their own—perpetually fresh ears. They crave that mirror that a trick of sunlight can create from storefront windows. They want to see their poems in faces other than their own, in the faces of other people looking on—and above all, listening. All poets want someone to find that bottle. If not right this moment, then certainly some day down the road a piece. “When I address someone, I do not know who I am addressing,” Mandelstam wrote, but added, “without dialogue, lyric poetry cannot exist. Yet there is only one thing that pushes us into the addressee’s embrace: the desire to be astonished by our own words, to be captivated by their originality and unexpectedness.”

Hopefully, a poem contains lines that will “continue long after they were written, as events, not merely as tokens of an experience which has passed,” just as Miles Davis has lasted in spite of going first. There are voices I will never forget, and can’t seem to get too much of: from the era in which I began to write poetry seriously: Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, James Schevill, William Stafford, Carolyn Kizer, Anthony Hecht, Philip Larkin, Jack Spicer, Paul Zimmer, Philip Levine; and now: Amy Gerstler, Mary Ruefle, Li-Young Lee. As audience, we may recognize the genuine poet’s voice, but how often? I fear that, buried in the moment of our own era, we too often fail to see the difference between a Robert Bridges and Gerard Manley Hopkins. We too often accept what is “bad for the clothes.” It is to be hoped, however, that in the future (having learned from the past—the neglect of figures such as Blake, Dickinson, and Hopkins), history will “not repeat itself” when it comes to the Hero Poet, when and if she or he appears: that unique individual communing with herself or himself alone and whatever reciprocal figure longed for as audience, saying–or singing about, as in Hyakunin isshu karuta–those things that truly matter, things without immediate practical “use” or value perhaps, but sung or spoken in the voice of our most ancient and most recent humanity—embodied in a bottle at the edge of the sea. “Poetry as a whole is always directed toward a more or less distant, unknown addressee, in whose existence the poet does not doubt, not doubting himself. Metaphysics has nothing to do with this. Only reality can bring life a new reality.”

Poets make poetry. If their words prove of value to others, as Osip Mandelstam said, “so much the better.”

And to complete this blog post with a visual component, I’d like to offer some photos as evidence that I have actually attempted, over the past forty-one years, to find an audience for my own work (I have given readings) and that on at least one occasion we succeeded in attracting a fairly substantial turnout. First: reading at Waldens Bookstore after I’d come to the Monterey Bay area to teach, circa 1974 (reading from the first book of poems I wrote here: Pacific Grove); reading for the Gentrain Society at Monterey Peninsula College; after a reading with George Fuller and Robert Sward at Bookworks in Pacific Grove; reading from the comic novel Trek: Lips, Sunny, Pecker and Me at Border’s in 2007; reading at Bay Books in downtown Monterey; the AUDIENCE (yes!) we had for a performance of Love Letters of Lynchburg (a play for two voices I wrote, with original musical score) at the Pacific Grove Art Center in August, 2010; reading for The Inherited Heart (with vocalist Jaqui Hope and bassist Heath Proskin) at The Works in Pacific Grove; and reading at Old Capitol Books in Monterey (Jaqui Hope sang poems I’d set to original music) in July 2014.

Bill First Readin in PG 2       Bill Reading for Gentrain Society

Bill with George Fuller and Robert Sward

BillMinorBorders12-07 2   Bill Reading at Bay Books 2

LLL Audience

Bill Reading at Launch  Bill and Jaqui at Old Capitol Books Robert Nielsen

The Poet’s Audience: Part One

I promised this informal essay as my next blog post: a piece I actually started as far back as the mid-1980s (a portion of which was published in Poet News: Sacramento’s Literary Calendar and News) and have recently completed—so I am offering thirty years of thought on the subject of an audience for poetry.

“A work of art is the social act of a solitary man.” So wrote John B. Yeats, a painter, a visual artist, and father of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Should this statement hold true for visual artists, how about poets, who may appear to be even more solitary and singular, enclosed as they are in their own world of words? Can such creatures ever rely on an “audience”? Do they even need one?

“I’ll go it alone,” a poet might be tempted to say. “I write only for myself.” Nonsense. “Alone” or “only for myself”—either way, that’s a fairly lonely enterprise, beyond the capacity of most people to endure, I suspect—although there have been heroic efforts. Yet even Emily D. cheated on occasion and sent poems to her friends, or enclosed them as an integral part of her letters.

We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of watching someone pass a storefront window that suddenly, through some nearly miraculous trick of sunlight, becomes a mirror. And we all know the reaction (more than likely because we’ve been guilty of it ourselves): that shock of recognition, quickly turning to preen for just a second, having seen oneself as others do. Let’s face it; we all crave “feedback” of some sort, preferably kind. We seek confirmation that we exist in the eyes and minds (and hopefully hearts) of others. And poetry is no exception to the rule of–fortunately in some cases–largely harmless egoism.

I have a friend who is an excellent jazz guitarist. He claims he went into jazz because he “can’t stand crowds.” This remark always draws a laugh from his audience, intimate (small) as that audience may be on occasion. They know that jazz, if it’s genuine, is a demanding art, and not a spectator sport for just anyone—except perhaps themselves. The same may be true of poetry. It remains, in spite of the admirable efforts on the part of someone like Bill Moyers to prove otherwise (those fine programs that might have been mostly ephemeral or impermanent attention getters, I fear, like anthologies that attempted to compare “great poems” to the efforts of Folk/Rock Troubadours in the Sixties), a somewhat esoteric art—at least in the United States where school kids may be expected to know the names of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, but are not necessarily obliged to read much of their poetry. We have no such card game as Hyakunin isshu karuta (based on an anthology, Single Verses by a Hundred People), a game popular in Japan in which players, given the first three lines of waka or tanka (as it was later called: a 31 syllable—5-7-5-7-7—form either way), are expected to know the last two lines in order to match up the parts. These poems date back to 1,235 A.D. It’s as if we knew most of Shakespeare’s sonnets by heart and could amuse ourselves by mating any octave picked at random with an appropriate sestet we could recite.

As a kid, I used to play “Authors” with my family, and I was intrigued by the faces of John Greenleaf Whittier (I also liked his name a lot!), Longfellow, and Poe, but not their poetry. Whatever skill I had at the game came down to remembering the names of works I was not likely to ever read (I haven’t, to this day, made it through all of Snowbound or The Courtship of Miles Standish). My daughter-in-law Yoko, who worked as a nurse in Japan before she married our son Steve, not only recalls playing Hyakunin isshu karuta as a child, but can to this day sing the poems, which have been set to music. In Japan, she belonged to a haiku society in which she wrote poetry herself.

As an American poet, I’m generally happy to have a few folks turn out to hear me read my poems, much less have had them memorize them for future use or reference in a card game, or learn to sing them (and I have set some of my poems to original music). As an American poet, I’d settle for just about anyone who might care deeply for much (or all) of what I write. But that’s a big order — even for family and friends.

The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who paid the ultimate public price for a poem (he died, a political prisoner at age forty-seven, in a transit camp near Vladivostok, having been arrested for reciting, at a party of close friends, a poem critical of Stalin—so watch out for your audience, should you find one!), said that the poet’s words are like a seafarer’s note (“containing his name and a message detailing his fate”) sealed in a bottle and tossed into the sea. Someone, someday, wandering along the dunes will “happen upon it in the sand.” If that person reads the message, or poem (“the last will and testament of one who has passed on”), he or she, having found it, becomes “its secret addressee.”

Mandelstam contrasts the normal reaction of a person with “something to say,” a person who “goes to other people,” [who] “seeks out an audience,” with the “terrifying indifference” of a madman or a poet who runs “to the shores of desert waves, to broad and resonant oaks” (Pushkin), the latter making himself—in the eyes of the world—as suspect as any madman. People would be “within their rights to stand back terrified of the poet,” if his or her words were not actually addressed to someone. But, Mandelstam adds, “This is not the case.” He writes of the “contractual relationship … the mutuality which attends the act of speaking,” yet acknowledges the ambiguity of an “audience” for poetry. “We do not know, nor will we ever know, where the audience is …Francois Villon wrote for the Parisian rabble of the mid-15th century, yet the charm of his poetry lives on today.” These thoughts (and saying that “every man has his friends. Why shouldn’t the poet turn to his friends, to those who are naturally close to him?”) led Mandelstam into his account of the seafarer and the bottle (or poem which, with the aid of the ocean and the “secret addressee,” will “fulfill its destiny”), and his belief in the sense of “providence” that overwhelms the “finder.”

Mandelstam’s account (the best, I’ll confess, most honest statement on the nature of audience I’ve ever found) ends there, but I think whatever use the finder or recipient puts the message (or poem) to is not the poet’s business, for the business of poetry seems to be to remain without much “use” at all. There is talk today, however, of an audience for poetry—that is, an audience aside from friends and an occasional seafarer.

First, we have that horde of fellow writers, their numbers legion: a wildly appreciative look on their collective face, ready to pick the brains — and poems — of whoever happens to be Bard for a Day, sizing up her or his images, ranking lines, appraising the “stance,” aping the style or voice (even personal habits or sensibility), trying her or him in the most literal sense: as adjudicators, parasites, or thieves, walking off–or running away–with whatever they feel is worth taking, lines (or “licks,” as they say in the jazz world) for the sake of their own poetry. But there is nothing new in this. Even Apollo, that unimaginative bully and bore, stole both prophecy and poetry from Pan, the man or goat who got there first. We have all I fear, at one time or another, been a part of this audience.

A second type consists of those good souls who have just “discovered” poetry: novitiates, postulants, neophytes who, their most elementary, essential feelings distorted, ignored or denied throughout their lives, have now been told by well-meaning enthusiasts to think of those feelings, and the instant discovery and expression of them (written down as quickly, “automatically” as possible, with none of the friction of conscious intent or craft) as poetry. And they do. The Greek word for the process is therapeia (a “waiting on” or “tending to sickness”). Mandelstam compared such practitioners to “children and simple people [who] feel flattered when they can read their names on the envelope of a letter.”

Let me say, for those of you in the “audience” who may be getting concerned or even chagrined at this point, that I am fully in favor of any activity–especially with children (of any age, aging adults!)–that involves working with words as a means of self-discovery (or acquiring self-enhancement), but do feel that people who undertake poetry seriously have an obligation to understand that it is a Craft, an Art Form that extends far back in time (its “lyric”–love song–mode as far back as 1300 B.C. Egypt, 1000 years before the “The Song of Songs”)—and perhaps, as human instinct, as far back as 250,000 years to Homo Neanderthalensis, or “The Singing Neanderthals.” (See Stephen Mithen’s book with that title).

A third audience, the most wildly appreciative and the most dangerous, actually “embraces” the poet, takes possession, confers celebrity status, claiming her or him as their very own. This group is as old as the insane strictures that circumscribe all tribal dance. Miguel de Unamuno called their successful efforts the “inquisition of culture.” The poet becomes culture’s “instrument”: chock full of exactitude, synteresis, prudence, equanimity, always ready to please whatever group, clan, or mob she or he has become spokesperson for or charming rebel or “character” within, shocking the community through occasional excess but never confusing it, winning hearts either way, for the terms on which such a poet exists are always theirs, not the poet’s own.

A genuine poet like Mandelstam (the Real Thing—his life devoted to the art) was the victim, most obviously, of the latter group, not because they embraced him favorably–which they did not–but because, in the form of the powerful Union of Writers, they denied that he had any place in contemporaneous “culture” or the world of poetry at all. They excluded him from the tribal dance. They simply turned their backs on him and did him in. And, in his case, the first group was no better. Running scared, owing so much to him and knowing it, they pretended they owed him nothing at all. The second group, on the “rise” (and maybe “the make”), fully caught up in their own small moment of poetical/political history, busy “expressing themselves,” simply pretended he did not exist. “There have been entire epochs,” Mandelstam said, “when the charm and essence of poetry were sacrificed to [these] far from inoffensive demand[s].” It may be comforting to know (ho ho) that “P.C.” is not a recent invention.

Mandelstam left behind words: words in a bottle, words that, for some peculiar reason, people today (an audience far down the road from his cruel era) have chosen to remember. Why? Before we examine this peculiarity (and it is one: that someone so disenfranchised, even condemned, slighted, ignored should now be so well remembered, and revered), let me indulge a wild idea of the Gnostic Mandaens. They believed that in some “upper world,” a person’s “original idea”–an image or eternal Self –prospered, while “here below,” the earth Self sweated it out in exile. “The image “above,” kept safe, got better as the person below got worse, perfected by inevitable failures and compromises–a sort of inverse Dorian Gray. But which was the poet and which the audience? Perhaps that better Self, in total tolerance and sympathetic accord, yet also demanding in a friendly, family way, served as W.H. Auden’s true censor: that “inner examiner … only interested in one author and only concerned with works that do not yet exist.”

A portion of the poet him- or herself a poet’s best audience?

Why not? No one could demand more, or less. But this doesn’t really explain why anyone else should find poets or their poetry worth remembering. The concept–like audiences one, two and three–is too confined and confining, too selfish, too small. And after all, What is poetry? Perhaps if we knew what it was we could determine just whom it’s for.

Unfortunately, most attempts to define poetry, objectively, prove discouraging, if not downright futile. Coleridge spoke of “the best words in the best order,” as if a poem were a verbal corset, or military troops in line for review—a theory that makes me want to launch some sort of insane dance, naked, arms akimbo, just to allow poetry to breathe freely again. Shelley’s “best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds” reminds me of an ad for a film by Walt Disney, and Matthew Arnold’s “criticism of life” makes me want to celebrate the death of his century. Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “speech framed” strikes me as the oddest thing in the world for him to say (whose speech, compared to the tight frames, or corsets, of his friend Robert Bridges, always runneth over—and in sprung rhythm no less!). Among the Moderns, Wallace Stevens’ “a revelation in words by means of the words” and W.H. Auden’s “the clear expression of mixed feelings” sound as fatuous as those two might have become around cocktail hour on any given day, being terribly witty in tandem, the sort of occasion at which the statements may well have been made. Archibald MacLeish’s justly famous (when it was first espoused) “not mean but be” has borne repeating, but maybe to the point where it shouldn’t be repeated anymore. Heard too often, the phrase begins to cloy, to sound vacuous. Poet Richard Howard just gave up on a definition, calling poetry “the best kept secret of all.”

Who can we trust then? Paul Valery was a genuinely serious, philosophically-oriented poet, and his insights were no toss off, although it’s somewhat disheartening to see how they varied, even within a single essay. I am attracted to his “A poem must be a holiday of Mind. It can be nothing else,” but at one point, he succumbs, as most poets do, to expansive nonsense: poetry represents or restores (to what?) all those things which “cry, kiss, caress, sigh,” et cetera. Et cetera indeed! Then he goes in for philosophical levitation, saying, “Poetry is only literature reduced (italics mine) to the essence of its active principle.” Huh? That’s pretty abstract, and we all know what Ezra Pound had to say about that (“Go in fear of abstractions.”). Valery also confesses that most people have such a vague idea about poetry that “this vague feeling itself is their definition of poetry.” I like that one! I think of Poetry Audience Number Two: the therapy/thrill seekers. And also, I suspect, most poets who, as they should be, are mainly concerned with writing the stuff–that medium, as Auden said, to which they are “accustomed”.

If I have been toying with the sacred Great, it was to show that, even among them, objective definition as such is not likely to get us very far. Therefore, I must be subjective again—as subjective as the act of writing itself. I do love another statement of Valery’s and one by Mandelstam. Valery spoke of “energy that spends itself in responding to what is,” and Mandelstam said that the living word does not just denote objects, but takes up “residence” in them–freely choosing its meanings within a body that’s nice to inhabit. Mandelstam had an “architectural” notion of poetry: to truly “know” something meant “to build,” and “to give meaning.”

I like the approach of these two fine “practicing” poets (not just theorists; I also like Robert Graves’ “But nothing promised that is not performed,” the last line of his fine poem “To Juan at the Winter Solstice”) because they, as perceptions, are as active (zestful), sexy, tidy and tightly yet spontaneously drawn as a good poem, and because they emphasize what I feel is most important: poetry is an act, a distinct response to something–a definite residing within what is. If poetry is an act, a response, a residing within, it just may, as such, not possess suitable time–within its own fine active, sexy, tidy, tight time–to consider or care about how others respond to or use it. Like sex, it’s stingy within its own context. Which brings us back to that use which is no use at all.

Mandelstam asserted that an audience representative of a particular era or age (and he had to contend with plenty of those) tore the wings from poetry, deprived it of “air,” made it incapable of the “freedom of flight,” divested it of life and surprise. Working on the premise that poetry is “the consciousness of being right,” yet acknowledging that a poet will search the face of whomever he converses with “for sanctions, for a confirmation of [that] sense of rightness,” Mandelstam knew that a genuine poet’s eye “darts beyond his generation” (even though he may have friends within it), because addressing a “concrete, living” audience, representatives “of the age” (as even friends can be!), the poet, and his poetry, can only speak “of what is already known” (this is what he calls “a powerful, authoritative psychological law. Its significance for poetry cannot be under-estimated”). Proshchai (farewell, or final goodbye) to all surprise! “The sight of ears ready to listen may inspire others—an orator, a politician, a prose writer,” Mandelstam said, “anyone, that is except a poet.”

He did speak, however, of the “abiding value” of poetry and its “sacramental nature.” And so would I.

What seems clear is that the poet’s primary encounter is with this oblational response or the rite of making poetry itself. Poetry then may be a unique form of prayer/praise that runs the risk of voiding itself at nearly every turn–something invaluable, treasurable to hold on to. I know of no other way to account for the power of poems–their hold, not just on any particular era’s audience, but on that solitary figure as yet unknown, the one who, happening across that poem in a bottle discovered among the dunes, will feel herself or himself to be the reader, its reader, or (in Mandelstam’s words) “the chosen one.” Response on this scale seems a natural enough spin-off from the larger: the poet’s response itself: reciprocity with not only the poem made but the rite of making it, the sacramental act undertaken–“homologizing the personal and the universal,” which, according to Joseph Campbell, is the “basic method of mythological discourse.”

And, to my way of thinking, poetry. The response to poetry should be as personal (and universal) as the act of writing it. But a living, concrete audience (always on the edge of being a crowd, or even a mob) may be incapable of such a response. It’s got too much else on its mind, is easily distracted by inessentials. It’s too fickle, too false, and more than likely should not be entrusted with such valuable human encounters as sex and prayer–or poetry. However, if an audience with the genuine, rich, surprised appreciation of that seaside “secret addressee” could be found in the present, within the poet’s lifetime—wouldn’t that be wonderful?!

And that seems a suitable (and suitably playful for this truly difficult subject) spot for me to stop, for today—even though I have more both playful and grave (deadly serious) things I hope to say about poetry and its audience. I hope you’ve enjoyed this, Part One, on the subject as much as I have enjoyed attempting to put it together–assuming I just might have an “audience” out there, somewhere–an audience for whom I’ll close with a series of drawings and woodcuts I did of Osip Mandelstam, ranging from when he was twenty-two years of age in 1913 to 1936, two years before his death: these in honor of that splendid poet. And I’d also like to celebrate having acquired 3,022 “views” on the blog I started in July, 2013 (1,725 visitors from 53 different countries from Albania to Zimbabwe)—so thanks to everyone (worldwide!) who has paused to check out or take a look at what I’ve posted on Bill’s Blog.

Mandelstam 1   Osip 5   Osip 6

Osip 8   Osip 9   Mandelstam2