Friday, July 19, 2013

podcast and video

I am off at my Maine camp, stealing the village clerk's WiFi now. So late July and early August will see little from me on the blog. I do, however, have links to a podcast and a video of an interview I did for Burlington, Vermont's Shelagh Shapiro, who conducts a lively and intelligent interview show called "Write the Book."



Friday, July 5, 2013

On Poets' Awkwardness

What follows is an excerpt from A Hundred Himalayas: Essays on Life and Literature, which appeared last fall in the University of Michigan Press's Writers on Writing series. The chapter was originally a talk presented to candidates for the MFA at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

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

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.
Given this mix of strength and undeniable weakness that I bring to the table, I’m necessarily a little skeptical about certain craft discussions I’ve read or heard, too often presenting the speaker’s own practices as the correct ones, trivializing or attacking others. I hope not to do the same. The world would be the better for a little more humility than one notices in most quarters, literary and otherwise.

In brief, I’m suspicious of talks or essays or books that say, fundamentally, Here’s How You Do It.  Forty years ago, nervous as a cat about teaching my first creative writing course, I sought help from a volume called How to Write Fiction or something to that effect. Oddly, I was not distracted by the fact that the author’s own fiction had never been much published: at least I for one had never heard of any at that time, as I haven’t since.

When I tried to apply that book’s admonitions to my students’ work, I rarely found it helpful. I quickly saw, of course, that how you do it and how I do it, and how he or she do it are inevitably different. I don’t to my knowledge even share genes with anyone in this room, let alone other things that influence our respective views of the world, so if I’m expected to tell anyone how to do it today, I will disappoint.

If I touch at some length on how I do it, that’s only because I hope sharing my process may stir something in your own minds; if it does, that will be something you’ll have to use in your own way. I scarcely imagine you’ll drop everything to follow me down my enlightened path, which is in fact not much enlightened anyhow. Indeed, I feel awkward as a writer most of the time, just as I often feel awkward as a man, one speaking to you now in some diffidence. In fact, for me poetry, more than other genres I’ve dabbled in, is a crucial instrument for working with that very awkwardness. I’ve often claimed, indeed, that that’s largely what poetry is for.  If writing poems affords me a way of grappling with my awkwardness, in the process abating it some, I won’t really care much about reputation, prizes, and other trappings of a “successful” career. That may sound disingenuous, but it’s true.
Back, briefly, to the autobiographical trail I was trotting a few moments ago. I came to a sustained writing habit very late. Well north of 35 when I started with real dedication, I was 40 when my first collection appeared. Why should all that have been? Why hadn’t I gone on to a writing program like this one?

Truth is, even if I’d had enough on hand to present a portfolio, as I didn’t, I wouldn’t have found a tenth as many such programs in the middle sixties as now, a fact I mention neutrally, by the way. And even if I’d thought of being a writer back in my twenties, I’d never have dreamed of applying to any of the few available institutions, to Iowa, say, or Stanford.

You see, I had this peculiar idea that writers knew some sort of secret, and that they weren’t about to share it with me. The ones who had that secret were the few I knew who did go on to MFA programs.  Without access to their cabalistic knowledge, I‘d soon be headed either to Viet Nam or to graduate training. Unlike my beloved roommate, who fell in that war, I chose school.

After my graduate years, and after twice as much time teaching conventional literature courses, indeed well after the average laboratory rat would have found it, I finally understood what the secret was: if you want to be a writer, you have to, like, write.

In my defense, my own training as a scholar may have blinded me to this self-evident simplism. Strange to say, most of my teachers, brilliant as certain ones were, had a strikingly adolescent view of what makes a poet. They appeared to believe that he or just walks out one day, gets struck by lightning or the finger of God or whatever -- and PRESTO: here’s William Blake!

Small wonder I knew flat nothing about what being a writer meant. I had the fancy Ph.D., and in pursuit of it had read a whole lot of poetry, including a bit by the stars of that time. I could therefore have spun a pretty spiffy interpretation of poems by Lowell, Berryman, or Plath, but of course that intellectual gambit wouldn’t have helped me start on my own writing. I hadn’t discovered, to put matters tersely, how I might read poetry as a poet myself. I couldn’t yet read poetic composition, so to speak, from within.

Now I don’t know which was chicken and which egg. Did I learn to read as a writer by writing, or did I learn to write by learning to read in a new way?  It scarcely matters here. I’ll be speaking only of my own tendencies from here on.  As I’ve already indicated, there are poets I love, even idolize, who do things far differently than I do.  And of course there always have been: I think notably of Alexander Pope, who writes what he specifically calls essays in verse: the Essay on Man, the Essay on Criticism, and so on. But I’m not about to be the Pope of poetry, or of anything else. My rational, essayistic brain, a pretty under-developed organ anyhow, won’t prevail in my take on the art.  For me, at leasr, poetry has become another way of knowing, in which black can be black but can also be white, though that is probably an overstatement and is surely a poetical figure.

In any case, how do we know in lyric?  Time for a touch of that confessional mode: as I set out to discover what I may know, I must first become, in Wallace Stevens’s phrase, “an ignorant man again.” I must proceed in such ignorance until the poem reveals the knowledge I’ve alluded to.  But for fear that all this sound too dreadfully solipsistic, let me say that dealings with other people are as likely to spur me as any precious little frisson of private emotion. I must interact with family members, friends, community members, and people who never consider poetry at all. Loggers and farmers, for example:  I think we poets need to have commerce with such folk, and/or their urban counterparts, lest we believe that everyone shares our fascinations, and so proceed to write work based on this misprision. If there’s any danger at all in Creeping MFAism, it may be that we too often preach to our choirs. Yet that’s a different subject altogether, and I should try and move on in a linear, focused way.

Of course, however, I will not: it’s just not in me. I won’t, I can’t move straight ahead. Having, explicitly elsewhere and implicitly here, commended non-dialectical progress to prospective poets, I will ask you to indulge it now, as I make an apparently oblique leap.
I want for a moment to remember a certain question recently asked of me in connection with an anthology scheme: “How has music influenced your writing?” I’ve offered my response in another place as best I can, and rather than repeating it here, I’ll instead recite a poem, also recent.
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.