Last Thursday, I listened to four wildly diverse poets read their work aloud. A wonderful opportunity for some of us, a minor plague, I'm sure, for others. I kept thinking, Poor fiction writers and nonfiction writers; poor screenwriters; poor food preparers and bookstore owners; poor student workers wandering through the room. They must have been confused. How is it possible that the poet who stood in the afternoon and filled the room with long silences and the poet who stood in the evening, filling the air with rapid-fire words, both claimed the same name for their enterprise? How can anyone understand this game without rules? Or with different–new and strict–rules for each poem, each poet. Rules written, apparently, in invisible ink in some Secret Book of Poetry.
The philosopher Julia Kristeva theorizes about two kinds of language–the father's rational language (the language of "the law") and the mother's language of pleasure and nonsense (the language of babble). Like most such theories, it's only as true as it is useful. And it is useful to help explain poets, what unites them in their diversity, and why it can be maddening to read them. In daily life, we know how to choose our next word: If we are hungry, the next word is cheeseburger or hummus or kale. If we are in a hurry, it's faster. But a poet will often choose the next word because of the sound and rhythm the word creates. "I need," the poet might say, "a three syllable word that sounds like polyglot" or the poet might use a word with no regard for meaning, only to discover that the meaning took her into more promising territory. The pleasure of babble, our first language, keeps drawing the poem away from the shore of intention, even as the poet attempts to tug it back. It is in this riptide that poems are made.
When I began reading poetry, I was led to believe that each poem came with a correct answer, that someone might ask me to mark, with a number two pencil–darkening the circle completely–"the statement that best represents the theme of the poem." And I suspect that this is what scares so many of us away. But Kristeva's theories suggest that poetry has at least one foot in nonsense. They suggest that understanding is useful, but overrated. Do you understand the hummingbird in the garden? Is watching the hummingbird an experience in comprehension? Often a poem only wants to say: behold. Often it wants to say whatever you thought, you were mistaken, since it's not about thinking. Sometimes, pointlessness is the point. Often poetry wants just to raise a question, reawaken our senses, or simply point to "a red wheel / barrow // glazed with rain / water // beside the white / chickens."
It's okay to attend to the poem's needs sometimes and let it spark your own imagination others. It's okay to simply love poems. Or love them simply. Memorize them. Carry them in your pocket, your purse, your wallet. When my younger brother, who rarely read poems, was killed in a motorcycle crash the day before his twenty-first birthday, he had a copy of a nine-line poem by Terry Stokes in his wallet. It was not a great poem, but it was the poem he needed. The poem, called "In Lieu of a Father," was probably his real name. It begins: "I have taken up with women / the hysterical walls convey," and continues:
I have done the fandango with
some of the shy corners of the earth.
I find myself brave after two drinks,
or two nights without drinking. I create
worlds where two people fuck all the time,
in love, in haste. I have wasted this world,
& would waste any other.
The title undoubtedly attracted my brother. He was a fatherless child. I think he probably loved the sound of "hysterical walls convey" and the speaker's mixture of bravado and need. For me, the surviving brother, there is an odd relief in that last line, with its sense of fatedness. I often think my brother was lucky to find the poem that named his brief life journey.
"If it ain't a pleasure," the poet William Carlos Williams once said, "it ain't a poem." And yet, as wrong as it is to march past language to unearth some "hidden meaning," it is also wrong to stop at pleasure. Poems are experiences in language and one of our fundamental human activities is trying to sift experience for meaning. Whole industries are built on this need–astrology and psychology, philosophy and palmistry, the bombastic worlds of religion and self-help. All built on the small cluster of questions that haunt us. In the words of painter Paul Gauguin, "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?"
Such questions are still the provenance and province of poetry.
Santa Fe Reporter