A Hundred Himalayas is dedicated, in some sense, to reconsidering the way in which we respond to poetry, too many of us having been erroneously instructed by non-poets to think of a poem as above all a vehicle for "ideas."
A Hundred Himalayas is available from many sources, but here is a link to its listing on amazon.com:
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy: The Poet’s Awkwardness
This commentary,* whatever its worth, will, I promise, at least be honest, and to that extent a bit confessional. So I begin by meditating on why I felt a small knot in my stomach when I heard you expected to hear a craft talk. I’ve spoken, if anything, too much in public. Why, then, this fit of nerves, however slight?
Well, yes, I’ve talked my share about the literary life, but have tended to shy away from that word “craft.” My unease, it occurs to me, may be derived from a time when I was your age or younger, when my college offered no writing courses. Like most old-style academics, my professors preferred their poets dead; they’d have scoffed at communal discussion of the poet’s craft. Despite the career path I chose, which often leads me exactly to such conversation, maybe I still carry a trace of their attitudes. Indeed, how could I not, however much I’ve repressed or rejected that disposition?
In any case, I was never versed in the patois I associate with that word craft, and am hardly more at home with it even now. I could speak a lot more authoritatively on managing a New England woodlot or on how to train pointing dogs or what goes into editing a literary journal. I have lived for poetry, yes, but not exclusively.
I don’t for a moment brag about all this. It would be absurd to bash the very creative writing courses I’ve taught for so long, and with such pleasure. As a teacher, I don’t think I did any harm in the class room, for all that I don’t speak MFA very well. I also have eclectic tastes, more or less equally valuing, say, the best of Anthony Hecht and of Allen Ginsberg. In light of such latitude in my reader’s personality, as instructor I prefer to look at student poems in what I construe to be their own imaginative terms, not mine. I have no brighter approach to pedagogy than this: let me see your poem; perhaps I can help you to get out of your own way, allowing the poem to be what it wants to be. On which more later.
It’s one that must have begun as I listened to a new-to-me c.d. called Know What I Mean? featuring Cannonball Adderley. (I’ve been fan of Cannonball and his cornetist brother Nat since the sixties.) After just a few bars I suddenly thought of the first time of several that I heard Cannonball in live performance. That was at a club in Philadelphia called Pep’s Musical Bar, which in those days was owned by basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain. All this must have been in February, 1965, because just at that moment Dr. King and his followers were being brutalized in Selma, Alabama. I had worked at a camp for inner city kids in the north end of Philadelphia for four preceding summers, and was back for a visit.
As I reminisced on that particular time in my life and the nation’s, in due course I came up with the following:
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy:
The Stilt, some called him. Or the Big Dipper.
Chamberlain was the man, for whom
they changed the rules, because one night
he scored 100 points in a game.
And Wilt was the owner of Pep’s Café.
Broad and South, Philadelphia,
1965, where the great
Cannonball Adderley band of the time,
with Cannon himself on alto, his brother
Nat on cornet, Joe Zawinul
on keyboard, Yusef Lateef on tenor,
Sam Jones on bass and Louis Hayes, drums --
that Adderley band was turning out
the whole damned place, it was standing room only,
and there I was standing in a jam-packed aisle
between bar and booths, in love with sound.
How precise it is, the way I remember
that Yusef had launched into Gemini
when I felt the tap on my shoulder and turned
and looked straight into the middle button
of a splash-weave jacket and heard a voice say
from way up there, Pardon me, white man.
What else on earth would I do but pardon?
I felt that I was the one who needed
pardon, not because I felt fear,
as I might have, the man being more than tall,
the man being wide as a truck as well,
which you couldn’t tell on television --
it wasn’t fear, but rather the utter
incapacity, my own
or anyone else’s, to take that night
and the muted light and the mellow liquor
feeling and to blow every bit of all that
out into air in one big breath,
so the breath would somehow change the world
that I knew surrounded everybody.
Dr. King was trying to change it
in spite of frothing dogs and cops.
You watched it every day on t.v.
The clubs. The cattle prods. Perhaps,
though I was just 22, this was
my first real understanding of how
goodwill can count for nothing and magic
thinking will buy you at best another
beer if you can make your way
-- pardon me, pardon me, pardon me, pardon me --
past those suave black bodies and up to the bar
and make yourself heard over harmonies
and tumbles down into dissonance
and back of the white-hot reeds and brass,
above the drums, above the pulsing
wrenching chords that Joe broke into
next on Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.
What are the ingredients that went into this poem’s “knowledge,” as in my vanity I name it? First off, and of course unknown to the reader, I’d heard that new c.d., though the sidemen are different from the ones referred to in the poem. But there was surely other hidden stuff too, which no reader could possibly know. Every poem, I believe, has its hidden allegory in addition to its overt material, so that none is ever entirely understandable, even to its author.
I also believe that every poem has its own formal instincts. I discovered that my first, rushed, more or less free-verse draft ended up being 54 lines long. That allowed me to try dividing it into six stanzas of nine lines; then nine stanzas of six lines. When neither worked for me, I cut one line from the whole and generated four stanzas of thirteen lines with a final one-line stanza that came down hard on the title of the tune. (I may well, as so often, have been fooling around with this sort of thing to compensate my otherwise hopeless relation to mathematics.)
Now resorting to mere addition, subtraction and division probably sounds mechanical as can be, and in some sense it doubtless is; yet for me it’s also liberating, because such a strategy distracts me from thematic over-management. The fiddling with line-count set me loose to play with my materials, which for a poet are words and lines and stanzas, just as for the musician they’re notes, phrases, chord structures, scales. If I can lose myself to the almost physical properties of language, I find, the thematic issues will take care of themselves.
As I reflected on the six-line stanza, on the nine, and ultimately on the thirteen, for example, my effort (and in two of the three tries my failure) to make each one not only a component of the whole but also a more or less self-contained unit, allowed certain thematic possibilities to sneak up on me. I did not have to will them into existence. If meaning, to call it that, did come, it did so unbidden. I subordinated my ego to the poem, which allowed it to be what it wanted to be.
As I said earlier, my goal as teacher is to help my students do the same, which means they must learn to pick up on the clues that their own words and forms seem spontaneously to plant in beginning drafts. Here, the title of the tune I used as the last line, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” simply leapt in at the close; that closing line is, I think, the one component of the poem that never changed. “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” was not the tune that played just after Wilt tapped me on the shoulder, but it certainly should have been, as the other parts of the poem suddenly made clear.
Before I started, my will may have wanted this poem to evoke transport by music, but it seems the poem itself was looking for something else: when the tune’s title dropped into so crucial a part of the draft, it made me recognize the part of guilt in what I’d thought to be my goodwill that evening. Mercy seemed to have something to do with the word pardon in Chamberlain’s “Pardon me,” though the politeness of his request was more than a little sarcastic. There was something about me that needed pardon. Maybe deep down, far as I may have been from some frothing white supremacist, I understood myself as at least tangentially implicated in that disgrace down in Selma. I was, after all, an American of European stock.
And finally, straightforward as it may appear, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” being a 4/4 tune, I decided to write my poem in tetrameter, another choice that pulled me away from worrying too greatly about so-called theme. I wanted more to enact the evening, you see, than to comment on it, at least in an overt way.
That moment in Pep’s; that eye-blink encounter with Big Wilt; that rendition of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” a tune I hadn’t yet heard from that band or any -- all of this got tied up in memory with the violence confronted by civil rights activists around the country in that era. It’s at least possible it got tied up too with the fact that Joe Zawinul, the featured musician and the author of this particular song, was the only white musician in the quintet. That is, he’d found entrée to a world which I revered, but which -- however much I tried to tell myself otherwise -- remained pretty opaque to a young Ivy Leaguer like me. To recall my words from earlier on: the profound sense of my own awkwardness, then and much later, surged back into my consciousness.
On a lighter but related note, everything I’ve said has something to do with poetry as play, and in several senses of that term: it is play in the sense of drama; it is also play in the sense of playing around with one’s materials, like children in a sandbox -- no shame in that; and it may be play in more or less the same sense we use the word when we speak of a musician’s performance.
Where can all this play take us? To discover where, either as readers or as writers, is at the heart of the excitement – I can’t call it less -- that this art has always stirred in my own being, as I hope it may in yours.