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.