Last Friday night, I read at Goodbye Blue Monday, a really cool bar in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, as part of the The Stain of Poetry: Reading Series. Not only was it the first time I’d been to a reading that I wasn’t running in a very long time – so I could sit back and just listen – but it was the first time I’d read from my own work in at least as long. I was more nervous than I thought I would be, and I could feel – though the audience might not have noticed – the awkwardnesses where I not-quite-stumbled because the poems I was reading were no longer as familiar to me as they once were. I was disappointed that my wife was not there, since I read a poem I wrote for her, but she had to stay home with our son, who steadfastly refuses to go to poetry readings anymore. “I already know what they’re going to say,” he told us, when we asked if he would make an exception that night. “‘Something happened and now I’m happy’ or ‘Something happened and now I’m sad.’ It’s boring!”
The first time we took him to a reading, he had no objection to going – he was, after all, only three or four years old – but he was adamantly opposed to my being one of the people who read. I’d asked him if I could read one of the short poems that I’d written for him and that he loved to hear me recite, and he said no, absolutely not. I have, unfortunately, lost almost all of those poem. They – most were limericks – were either casualties of one of the computer virus infections that on a couple of different occasions forced me to wipe hard drive clean when I was using Windows or perhaps they were lost when I moved all my files over to the iMac that I use now. Either way, this is the only poem I remember:
The boy in the tree looked down
and said to himself with a frown,
“I’ve climbed up this high,
but I still don’t know why!“
So he stayed till he knew, then climbed down.
So I assured my son I would not read any of our poems, and we went to the The Poetry Project, where the reading was taking place; but when it was my turn and he heard my name called my son turned to his mother and asked where I was going. “To read his poems,” she answered. As soon as she said that, my son started not just crying, but screaming, at the top of his lungs, and nothing my wife did could quiet him. He was so loud that she had to take him out of the building; closing the door to the room where the reading was being held and walking to the other end of the hall was not enough.
I finished my poems more quickly than I would have liked and rushed outside. When my son saw me, he started crying even harder, and it didn’t matter how many times I reassured him that I didn’t read any of our poems, the tears just kept coming. He cried in my arms, the strength of his sobs shaking his small body, while I carried him to the car; he cried as my wife buckled him into his car seat, and he cried right through all of the strategies we’d used in the past to get him to stop crying. Only when I began to recite the poems I’d made for him, starting with the one I quoted above, did he get quiet, and then when I said them a second time, he started to smile. By the third time, he was laughing with me the way he usually did. Then, he fell asleep, exhausted from all the crying he’d done.
The only way I have been able to make sense of my son’s reaction is that, for him, poetry, not just his poems, but poetry as a whole, had been “ours,” something private, and the idea of me reading my poems in public made him feel like I was giving something away that we would not be able to get back. Only when he realized that “our” poems still belonged to him, because I was still able to recite them the way I’d always done, did he realize that my giving a reading did not mean he’d lost them.
Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, my son began not only to write poetry when he was in first grade, but to publish and perform his work as well. Two years in a row, when he was in first and second grade, poems he wrote were selected for publication in the anthology produced by CCNY’s annual Spring Poetry Festival, which is also a literary competition, and he performed those poem in front of quite a large audience when the winner’s were announced. He’s given me permission to share two of the poems that he wrote when he was in second grade. (What can I say? I am a proud father, and I think these are very good.)
The massive thing that will never come down,
the terrible thing that will make you frown.
It’s the master and it’s the beat. It’s the thing that has big feet.
Muscle and strength, strength and muscle,
if you want to escape it, you’d better hustle.
People dead and people cunning;
people stunned and people running.
It is green and it is mean;
it’s a mean, green killing machine.
It’s the hulk and when it’s palm
shrinks, it’s a little more calm.
Truth can be
Truth can be
When I think of any
word lightening flashes
Inside my mind,
truth is family.
My son, reasonably, was quite proud of this work and of the fact that he’d given his own poetry reading, but when I reminded him about this experience, trying one more time to persuade him to come with me and his mother to my reading last Friday night, he said, “Yeah, I know, but that’s my work. I don’t like hearing other people read their poetry to me. When I go to one of your readings, where you’re the only one who reads, at least it’s you, someone I care about. Why do I want to hear about the lives of people I don’t really care about?” and he repeated what he’d told us earlier: “It’s always ‘Something happened and now I’m happy’ or ‘Something happened and now I’m sad.’”
Later, my wife said, “I didn’t want to say anything in front of him, but, you know, I agree. Your poems at least always have some political meaning or at least leave me with something to think about, because they’re not just about your own feelings; it’s about a significance beyond who you are. When I go to readings with you, though, and I listen to other poets, I almost always find myself asking, ‘Who cares?’”
Okay, so she’s my wife, and she’s biased, but the truth is that I find myself having the same reaction – Why should I care? – to an awful lot of the poetry I read and listen to these days. I will not say that this is a good thing or a bad thing. My own preference is for a politically and personally engaged, mostly narrative poetry that pays a lot of attention to form and music, and that bias, of course, colors my responses to what I read, aesthetic and otherwise; but even beyond my bias, the poetry of any given time is what it is; people write what they write; and I have no doubt that it would not matter which historical period you picked: most of the poetry written at that time would very likely elicit more of a yawn than a yawp.
My point here, in other words, is not to complain about the sorry state of American poetry, as so many have done, using my son’s take on poetry readings – which is something many others have said, though in more developed ways – as a staring off point. Not only is it simply not true that American poetry is, as a whole, as self-indulgently self-involved as that description would have it, but I just don’t have in me the presumptuousness it would take to make that kind of pronouncement. Rather, what I’m interested in here trying to understand why, of the five other poets with whom I read last night, three left me feeling exactly as my son described, “‘Something happened and now I’m happy’ or ‘Something happened and now I’m sad.’ Why should I care?”
I need to insert here the obvious caveat that hearing a poet read is not the same as reading her or his work, and so what I have to say needs to be understood in that light. A poetry reading, after all, is a performance, and a bad performance can turn into a disaster what, on the page, is an otherwise successful poem. Neither is hearing a poet read for ten minutes a sound basis on which to judge his or her work as a whole. I am responding in this post to a poetry reading, and I think it’s important to recognize that going to a poetry reading is a qualitatively different experience from reading a book of poems, and, even more than that, that we go to those different experiences for different reasons, that they fill different needs, personal, cultural, and even political.
There were six of us who read last week: Douglas Allen, Macgregor Card, Kathy Fagan, myself, Chris Salerno and Rob Schlegel. I’m not going to say very much about Kathy Fagan, whose poems I liked a lot, and whose book, Lip, I intend to buy – here’s a review–because I think our work is probably more similar than it is different, and it is the effect on me of those poets whose work was unlike mine that I want to write about here.
The first reader was Douglas Allen, whose poems were the only ones that evening of which I did not like a single one. They were too self-consciously clever and detached, and there just wasn’t enough substance – intellectual, linguistic or emotional – to hold my interest. I copied down a part of one of his poems, which I will write here as a sentence, since I have no idea where the line breaks are supposed to fall: “Portable emotions for those in society who lack emotional portability.” In a different poem, another, similarly aphoristic passage ended with the words “is not even an even even.” It’s not just that I don’t know what either of those phrases means; indeed, I imagine I am not supposed to know immediately what they mean, that they are supposed to invite me through their cleverness to contemplate what they might mean – it’s that nothing about them compels in me even slightest interest in figuring that meaning out.
To make matters worst – and here is where the performance aspect of readings comes into play – the expression on Allen’s face, at least from the angle where I was sitting, and the tone of his voice as he read his poems, reminded me of the mocking and ironic superiority with which the comedian Daniel Tosh delivers his material. I don’t find Tosh particularly funny, but I recognize the genre of comedy in which he works, and I can appreciate it when it is well done, even if it usually doesn’t make me laugh out loud. I don’t know whether Allen’s delivery got in the way of his poetry for me, or whether there really was no poetry in the work that I could appreciate, but I was sympathetic to the guy who was sitting in front of me, with whom I’d been talking about art and poetry before the reading began, who walked out about half way through Allen’s reading with a look that said, “Sorry, I can’t take this anymore.”
If I hadn’t been one of the scheduled readers, I too might have walked out, though I am glad I did not, because I encountered during the rest of the evening poets who, while they did not always move me as performers, intrigued me enough that I was sorry I did not have enough money on me to buy their books. I am talking here about Macgregor Card, Chris Salerno and Rob Schlegel. Neither Salerno nor Schlegel – I will talk about Card below – read his work any affect, which made it very difficult for me to follow, but here, for example, are some lines that caught my ear from Salerno’s poem “Parks, Recreation,” which is in his new book, Minimum Heroic:
I’m wrong. This bottle was left here
by kids. They are more
afraid of you than you are of them,
and lay flat as a banner
for soldiers flying over.
The idea that people are afraid of children in the way that others are afraid of, say, snakes – which is the situation in which I have most commonly heard the more-afraid-of-you line – coupled with the image of children as “a banner for soldiers,” which makes them, at one and the same time, a target and an emblem cheering the soldiers on into what they are fighting for, brings together all kinds of anxieties in connections that are worth contemplating and that comment in potentially important ways on the historical moment in which we in the United States are living. That kind of contemplation, however, resembles for me more the kind of attentiveness that I bring to a painting than, say, a piece of music, which is what a poem at a reading is. Music, in fact, is the primary thing I listen for in the poems I hear at a reading, and when I looked up “Parks, Recreation,” I understood immediately why the five lines I quoted above were the only ones I remember. The rest of the poem feels tacked on, and it feels that way mostly because the music of the last eleven lines is so much less tightly woven, so much less interesting sonically and syntactically than the first nine. Indeed, “for soldiers flying over” feels to me, musically anyway, like the point at which the poem should end:
Except for clearing the land by fire,
not much is legal.
To create tension, debris lay
on one third of an acre.
I’m wrong. This bottle was left here
by kids. They are more
afraid of you than you are of them,
and lay flat as a banner
for soldiers flying over.
We put our blanket down in the fog.
Our kite holds a mirror to nature.
We’re dead. Our days are
pressed into slides. I must be coming
down with something–
you are standing right there
in the clearing:
tight white headband, racket
between your thighs.
When I’m wrong, a blush
awakens in the sky.
My point, however, is not to rewrite Chris Salerno’s poem for him, but rather to say that the way he read his poems made them sound to me as musically uninteresting as the last eleven lines of “Parks, Recreation,” which made it very difficult to attend to what I think, extrapolating from the first nine lines of “Parks, Recreation” is probably a vision worth paying attention to.
I had a similar experience listening to Rob Schlegel, whose affectless reading left me even colder than Salerno’s, though I also caught in Schlegel’s work – his book, The Lesser Fields, won the 2009 Colorado Prize for Poetry – moments of interest that made me want to know more. I’ve only been able to find two of the book’s poems online, one of which – the more memorable of the two – I am pretty sure that he read. I am not sure about the other one, which I find quite forgettable. Ironically, though, it is the forgettable poem, the one I don’t think he read, that recalls for me the experience of listening to him:
Lives of Method
Day following day
And the contents add up.
These it is
That clash — then widen
The field of questions—
That which law
And spirit leaven.
Speak the world in multitudes
And stay in it.
Would that every loss
Reveal its science.
That every prayer
Conceal its source.
With the exception of the last four lines, nothing in this poem interests me, not semantically, not syntactically, not rhythmically, not musically, and even the last four lines don’t add very much, in terms of form or content, to the ways in which those sentiments have been expressed before. My point is not that every poem in a book needs to sing with an unassailable originality. There are poems in my own book that, when I read them now, I think, “Eh. It served its purpose in the book, but it’s really pretty forgettable.” Rather, as with my experience of Chris Salerno’s reading, Schlegel’s performance of his own poems leached from them whatever interest I might have found, leaving me feeling about all of the work he read the way I feel about “Lives of Method.” Yet, when I read “Allies,” the second poem from The Lesser Fields that I was able to find online, which I am pretty sure was among the poems Schlegel performed – when, in other words, I was able to hear the poem’s voice “for myself,” without the interference of Schlegel’s performance – I found it to be subtle, startling and unsettlingly dark. He was, all of a sudden, a poet whose work I wanted know more about::
Until someone steals my coat
I am the younger brother
of each passenger on the train.
I polish their black shoes
and offer to clean the mirrors in every restroom.
At night I sleep and my siblings
try to see the passing fields
by looking out their windows
but the dark glass only reveals
their own reflections
so they think
if they could lighten their hair, they would.
If they could change their names
they would try that too.
Granted, “Allies” is the kind of poem towards which my bias leans, while “Lives of Method” is not, but I think it is worth paying attention when the way in which a poet reads from her or his work makes a poem that you would otherwise like into a poem that you do not; and even if “Allies” was not among the poems Schlegel read, my point is still the same. His performance left me feeling like each work that he read had more in common with “Lives of Method” than it did with “Allies,” and clearly that was a misperception of his work that it would be worth correcting.
Macgregor Card, the last of the four poets I want to write about, is the author of Duties of an English Foreign Secretary, which was selected for Fence’s Modern Poets Series prize in 2009. Card’s poetry is diametrically opposed to mine in terms of how he handles meaning – which is to say his work is very much about disrupting meaning, or at least, since it would be wrong to say that his poems do not have meaning, disrupting conventional approaches to how meaning in poems is made, specifically by disrupting narrative. At the same time, however, the attention he pays to the formal qualities of his verse reveals him to be a kindred spirit. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to write down the titles of the poems he read on Friday night, especially the first one, which contained an absolutely marvelous jazz riff on the letter F and, if I remember correctly, the word “fend,” but I became so absorbed in his performance that, frankly, I forgot, and then, later, when I chatted with him for a brief while, I forgot to ask him. So, instead, I will offer as an example of what I mean by his attention to form and musicality this excerpt from the title poem of his collection. (I think he read this poem, but I am not sure.) This is the first strophe of “Duties of an English Foreign Secretary:”
Moon, refrigerate the weeping child
and guard his stony brook.
There is no thing between the woods
like music of the band
and I’ve got friends in London, no I’ve
got friends in London,
lawyer in their hearth or billion starry heath
in the language of mine
that they laugh at
delphiniums rev up the fire,
really look at them go
lead into the throat
a snowfield gas,
a Crimean slogan,
in England or in sum,
no papers go off bang to pad the fog.
Read these lines aloud and the smoothness with which they roll of the tongue makes it easy to miss the degree to which they have been carefully crafted. The first four lines, for example, fall almost perfectly into traditional ballad meter. The second and fourth lines may not rhyme, but the alliteration of brook and band knits the lines together in a way analogous to what a rhyme would accomplish, and the assonance connecting brook and wood only intensifies the music. Then, note the play of L and H sounds in the next six lines or so, and then the long O sounds in the next four lines. I could go on. The patterning of sounds here creates its own meaning, weaves the words together syllable by syllable, morpheme by morpheme, into a melody that is so lovely to listen to that I don’t really care that I don’t understand what the words actually mean or that Card intends their resistance of an easy narrative significance to create anxiety about meaning even as I try to make meaning of them.
At the same time, though, as much as Card’s music makes his verse enjoyable independently of what it might mean, the music is also part and parcel of that meaning. The poem’s address to the moon is a kind of satirical critique of the romantic poem in which the moon, say, is asked to bear witness to the lonely man or woman walking in the woods, weeping because her or his beloved is elsewhere, or dead, or dying, or unfaithful, and Card’s music, while not fitting into any fixed poetic form, nonetheless recalls in its lyrical nature the music of the perfectly rhyming ballads in which such sentimental feelings were often expressed. More to the point, precisely because Card’s music is so explicitly an exploration of language that can be experienced apart from meaning, his poetry at a reading gives me something to listen to, to engage with imaginatively, in a way that the work of the other three poets did not – and of course it doesn’t hurt that Card is a very good reader of his own work.
That exploration of language is what I go to poetry readings to hear, whether it is the kind of musical/formal exploration in which Card engages or the kind of exploration into meaning that happens in a substantive narrative or lyric poem; it is also that exploration, even when it is not entirely successful, that lifts poetry beyond the narrow confines of my son’s characterization, because when a poet explores language as language, he or she makes something happen in the language and that event, that process, is quite distinct from any autobiographical content the poem might contain. What happens might be located in the material nature of language, the morphemes, phonemes, syntactical structures and more that together make up the way language sounds; or it might be located in meaning, in the making of connections through narrative and metaphor between and among the poet’s self, the world beyond that self and the capacity of language to give that world, that self and those connections a form that others can comprehend.
What happens when you hear or read this kind of poetry is that the language, what is happening in the language, enters you, changes you and the way you see the world, changes you irrevocably, in ways you might not even realize. Mere happiness or sadness, whether on the part of the poet or the audience, is entirely beside the point.