I was, actually, hoping to post this yesterday, before the changing of the year, which happened some time between 6 and 7 PM, but I was very busy and didn’t get a chance to do it. So let me take this opportunity to wish all the Iranians I know, family and friends, and even those I don’t know, soleh noh moborak (Happy New Year!).
We celebrated last night at my wife’s aunt’s house, which was lovely, and I actually thought I might be celebrating tonight at the United Nations. Last Friday, I actually received a personal invitation from the Iranian mission to the UN to attend an event that the woman to whom I spoke, Zahra, said would be taking place this evening. In 2009, the UN declared Norouz part of humanity’s Intangible Cultural Heritage, and the event to which Zahra called to invite me, she said, would include representatives from all the countries that celebrate it. (The ones listed on the UN site are Azerbaijan, India, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan, though there might be more.) The invitation never arrived, and I have been wondering all week if perhaps Zahra changed her mind and decided not to invite me, though it’s also possible, since I cannot find the event on the UN’s calendar for today, that it was canceled. I am disappointed mostly for my son, for whom it would have been a very cool experience to celebrate Norouz at the UN.
Written in the 10th century by Abolqasem Ferdowsi (NPR did a feature on him not too long ago), the Shahnameh (Book of Kings) is the national epic of Iran, telling the nation’s story by recounting the tales of its kings, from the first, mythical king Kayumars to Yazdegerd III, who ruled Iran just before the Muslim Arab conquest in the 7th century. One of the best loved stories in the Shahnameh was given the title The Tragedy of Sohrab and Rostam by Jerome W. Clinton when he published his translation of it in 1987. Rostam is a Hercules-like character whose role throughout the epic is to defend Iran and its kings; Sohrab is Rostam’s son, conceived with Tahmine, a princess from one of Iran’s vassal kingdoms. When Sohrab reaches puberty and discovers who his father is, he decides that Rostam, the greatest warrior in the world, should be the ruler of Iran, not Kay Kavus, the king who rightfully sat on the throne at the time. Sohrab sets off with a dual mission, to find his father and to depose Kay Kavus.
Despite his youth, Sohrab is, like his father, a peerless warrior and when the Persians realize that none among them will be able to defeat him, they summon Rostam. Rostam does not know he has a son and, in what is the most puzzling aspect of the story, refuses to identify himself each of the several times that Sohrab asks who he is. The two warriors fight three times and, in the end, Rostam is victorious. As Sohrab lies dying, the true identities of the fighters are revealed and the story ends on a note of bitter sadness.
Matthew Arnold was so moved by this story, that he wrote his own version, “Sohrab and Rustum,” that is recognized by scholars to be an important turning point in his career as a poet. There are significant differences between Arnold’s version and the original, though, due largely to the fact that Arnold’s source was most like an inaccurate summary of the tale than an actual translation.
The prologue with which Ferdowsi frames the story of Sohrab and Rostam is a meditation on fate. The idea of the just nature of death comes from a form of Zoroastrianism which saw death as part of a realm that exists outside this world, that people do not have access to, and that contains all events that are inherent in time and cannot be avoided. Thus, since death comes to everyone, it always comes at the proper time and is, by definition, fair and just. This version of the prologue is from Clinton’s translation, which I mentioned above:
What if a wind springs up quite suddenly,
And casts a green unripened fruit to earth.
Shall we call this a tyrant’s act, or just?
Shall we consider it as right, or wrong?
If death is just, how can this not be so?
Why then lament and wail at what is just?
Your soul knows nothing of this mystery;
You cannot see what lies beyond this veil.
Though all descend to face that greedy door,
For none has it revealed its secrets twice.
Perhaps he’ll like the place he goes to better,
And in that other house he may find peace.
Death’s breath is like a fiercely raging fire
That has no fear of either young or old.
Here in this place of passing, not delay,
Should death cinch tight the saddle on its steed,
Know this, that it is just, and not unjust.
There’s no disputing justice when it comes.
Destruction knows both youth and age as one,
For nothing that exists will long endure.
If you can fill your heart with faith’s pure light,
Silence befits you best, since you’re His slave.
You do not understand God’s mysteries,
Unless your soul is partners with some div.
Strive here within the world as you pass through,
And in the end bear virtue in your heart.
Now I’ll relate the story of Sohrab,
And how he came to battle with his father.
From an article called “The Secrets of Khameini’s Life,” written by Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Khameini, Iran’s Supreme Ruler, cares deeply about poetry and what I find interesting in this brief profile is the account of how poetry and politics mix at the highest echelons of Iran’s authoritarian, theocratic régime. Makhmalbaf, who has been living in exile in France, has become the Iranian opposition’s main spokesman abroad since the disputed presidential election in 2009. He posted the article to his website on Monday, December 28, 2009. The English translation from which I have taken this excerpt about Khameini’s interest in poetry is from Homylafayette’s blog:
Khamenei’s interest in poetry began at a young age and has been maintained till today. He spent long hours at the poetry association of Mashhad. He has written some poems. He is delighted when poets write poetry about him and expresses his satisfaction through gifts to the poets. Sabzevari and Ali Moallem, who are among the fawning Muslim poets, are constantly corresponding with him. It is through them that he is informed of the problems of artists affiliated with the régime. At the start of his Leadership, he received the poet Mir Shakak, who was a manic depressive, several times. Khamenei became very proud of himself when Mir Shakak upon saying goodbye would say, ‘Seyed zat ziad’ (Meaning ‘the honor is great’, which is a colloquial prayer). Khamenei invites poets to his Household several times a year so that they may recite poems in his presence.
At the beginning of his presidency, he asked Akhavan Saless, whom he knew very well, to write a flattering poem for the revolution. Akhavan Saless (NB Mehdi Akhavan Saless, also known as M. Omid) responded, ‘We artists are above the government, not with it.’ Khamenei was so incensed by this answer that he ordered that he stop being paid. (NB Akhavan Saless worked at the Academy of Artists and Writers). Akhavan Saless became unemployed after that. Gheysar Aminpour has referred to this event in his article on Akhavan.
Khamenei intensely disliked Shamlou (NB Ahmad Shamlou, one of the most prominent Iranian poets of the last century) and referred to him with hatred. But he never dared arrest and punish him, because he feared tainting his own name in history. He has read much about kings who mistreated poets. In his speeches, he has often cited Lenin’s phrase that if an ideology is not supported by art it will die. He loves poetry so much that if he had not become active in religion and politics, he would probably have turned to poetry and literature. However, because of his busy schedule, he sometimes makes glaring mistakes [in this regard]. Despite claiming to be knowledgeable about verse, when a young poet recited a poem in his presence, he asked him, ‘Is this poem by you?’ To which the poet responded, ‘No, it is by Sohrab Sepehri.’ (Any schoolchild knows Sepehri’s work).
This past Tuesday I had the unexpected pleasure of attending a poetry dinner given at the Roger Smith Hotel in honor of the Scottish poet Brian Johnstone. Everyone who attended, I was told, would be expected to pay for their dinner with a poem and, indeed, most if not all the people there were videotaped reading the poem they’d brought, most in English, but some in other languages as well:
You can see me, actually, in the background of a couple of these brief snippets. In literary terms, the highlight of the evening, of course, was getting to hear Brian read from his new book, The Book of Belonging. Here is “Taking a Letter:”
Taking a Letter
The best upper sets do it.
Missing from work, she explained it away
as a family affair. To the family, work was to blame,
wartime posting her south, her stenography skills
just what the doctor ordered.
But not what he said, probing so deep
that it hurt, blaming the thing
on the war, the bad faith it’d induced. But love
had induced her to do it, just like it said in the song.
Friends all said it was wrong, against every code,
but still booked a hospital bed, kept her hidden
when truth swelled the lie. All those letters
she’d taken, bar one, left unread.
The shorthand for gone was for good; for adopted
it was for best. The letter made it all plain: she won’t see
that baby again. It’s back to pounding the keys.
The bell rings — the line ends. Understood??
I also had the pleasure of meeting Elizabeth Torres, a founding editor of Red Door Magazine, which you should definitely check out. It was one of Elizabeth’s four seats at the table that I was invited at the last minute to fill, since the other person she was going to invite was unable to make it. Elizabeth is the woman reading two people before me; the woman after her, whose name I am sorry not to remember, was also part of her group; and there were two others, David Vanegas, also of Red Door, and a young writer from Argentina named Gabriella. We had a lovely train ride back to Queens, where we all live.
I’d originally planned to read one of my more openly political poems becuase I was in the mood, given what’s been happening in Egypt, but I ended up reading a poem called “Going Somewhere Else,” which I have never read in public before. I decided to read it because in talking to Brian about the summer I spent in Scotland in 1985 studying contemporary Scottish literature at Edinburgh University as part of the Scottish Universities International Summer School–and it was just lovely to remember the poets and novelists I read that summer with someone who knows the literature much better than I do – I learned that Brian knows one of the men who was one of my tutors while I was there, Gavin Wallace. Gavin made a big impression on me for a number of reasons, not least of which was the fact that he was the first male teacher I’d ever met who openly espoused the importance of reading the literature we were studying using a feminist perspective. In any event, I decided to read “Going Somewhere Else” because of this connection, and it turned out to be a good choice. After I was done, Brian turned to me and said, “I never in a million years would have thought that I’d come to America for the first time in my life, to New York City, to a poetry dinner like this at the Roger Smith Hotel, where I know practically no one, and hear a poem about the Pentland Hills, where I did my courting when I was younger.” Then he turned to his wife, who was sitting next to him and said, “That was before I met you, dear.” In any event, here is the poem, which is also the only poem I have ever successfully written in a syllabic meter:
Going Somewhere Else
Suggesting trees, a voice floats.
The boy is looking. Over
his shoulder, we see the road
run past a barbed wire fence,
but language I put between
his lips turns his thoughts to the
river, and we turn with him.
A cymbal crash places rocks
he climbs down to just inside
the line where shadow becomes
sunlight. Still playing, the man
with the flute rises, gestures
for the others to follow.
At the back of the theater,
hooded figures lock the doors.
A sudden blue-green spotlight
focused stage left. Time has passed.
Books fall from the sky, snowflakes
the young man catches on his
tongue, and he his smiling,
but the woman whose rhythms
fill the melody’s empty
spaces lifts her hands: Nothing
driving the song now but the
need each note creates in us
for the next one, and the next,
till the orchestra fades and,
center stage, I sit alone,
sketching at this piano
the hills I once imagined
walking with you, twilight hills
at once familiar and strange,
as from the top of the Pentlands
Edinburgh is all cities
and one city. Hills where my
companions — themselves composed
partly of parts of me — are
unaware, that with these notes
they do not hear, on these keys
that are not mine, I give them
lives they have never lived.
Shortly after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Partow Nuriala was forced by the government to stop teaching philosophy at Tehran University, where she also worked as a social worker. She subsequently founded Damavand Publications, one of the first independent woman-run presses in Iran. Three years later, the government shut the press down, an ironic development since it was during the revolution in Iran that the ban on her first book of poetry, A Share of the Years, which had been imposed by the Pahlavi régime in 1972 was lifted. In 1986, Partow came to the United States with her two young children. Since 1988, she has worked in the Los Angeles County Superior Court as a deputy jury commissioner, though she still has an active literary career. Her publications include four books of poems, literary and movie reviews, a collection of short stories and a play. “I Am Human” was published in the anthology Strange Times, My Dear and was translated by Zara Hushmand.1
I Am Human
Bow your form
in sight of the earth.
Hide your face
from the light
of the sun and moon,
for you are a woman.
Bury your body’s blossoming
in the pit of time.
Consign the renegade strands of your hair
to the ashes in the wood stove,
and the fiery power of your hands
to scrubbing and sweeping the home
for you are a woman.
Kill your word’s wit:
Feel shame for your desires
and grant your enchanted soul
to the patience of the wind
for you are a woman.
that your lord
may ride in you
at his pleasure,
for you are a woman.
in a land where ignorant kindness
than the cruelty of knowledge.
I weep for my birth
as a woman.
in a land where
the zeal of manliness
bellows in the field
between home and grave.
I fight my birth
as a woman.
I keep my eyes wide open
so as not to sink
under the weight
of this dream that others
have dreamed for me,
and I rip apart
this shirt of fear
they have sewn to cover
my naked thought,
for I am a woman.
I make love to the god of war
the ancient sword of his anger.
I make war on the dark god
that the light of my name
for I am a woman.
With love in one hand,
labor in the other,
I fashion the world
on the ground of my glorious brilliance,
and into a bed
of clouds I tuck
the scent of my smile,
that the sweet smelling rain
may bring to blossom
all the loves of the world,
for I am a woman.
My children I bring
to the feast of light,
to the feast of awareness,
for I am a woman.
I am the earth’s steady purity,
the enduring glory of time,
for I am human.
Apologies to the poet and the translator for the inaccurate line breaks. I don’t know how to make WordPress show them as they are supposed to appear. [↩]
Forugh Farrokhzad was the most significant female Iranian poet of the twentieth century, corresponding most closely, in terms of American poetry, to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Her poems are political, feminist, sexual, erotic, breaking almost every taboo that existed for women in the 1950s and 60s in her country. For her commitment to her art and her vision, she earned the scorn of her society and her family. She was committed to a mental institution and had her only biological child removed from her custody. Today, she is recognized for the great artist that she was, both in and out of Iran. A selection of her work has been beautifully translated by Sholeh Wolpe in the book Sin, published by The University of Arkansas Press. This poem, Grief, is from her book Asir (Captive), which was published in 1955:
Like the disheveled locks of a woman
the Karun river spreads itself
on the naked shoulders of the shore.
The sun is gone, and the night’s hot breath
wafts over the water’s beating heart.
Far in the distance the river’s southern shore
is love-drunk in moonlight’s embrace.
The night with its million brilliant bloodshot eyes
spies on beds of innocent lovers.
The cane field is fast asleep. A bird
shrieks from amid its darkness,
and the moonbeams rush to see
what fear has driven it to such despair.
On the river’s skin, palm shadows
tremble at the sensual touch of the breeze,
and inside the silent secret deep of night,
frogs sing their loud frog songs.
In this rapturous night’s bliss
the distant dream of your hands draws near,
your scent rushes in like a wave, your eyes
glimmer on the water’s face, then go dark.
My pitiful heart, eager and hopeful,
fell captive to the hands of your love.
You sailed away on your own river, left this land–
O snapped branch of my passion’s storm.
“For me, imagination is synonymous with discovery. To imagine, to discover, to carry our bit of light to the living penumbra where all the infinite possibilities, forms, and numbers exist. I do not believe in creation but in discovery, and I don’t believe in the seated artist but in the one who is walking the road. The imagination is a spiritual apparatus, a luminous explorer of the world it discovers. The imagination fixes and gives clear life to fragments of the invisible reality where man is stirring.
The mission of the poet is just that — to give life (animar), in the exact sense of the word: to give soul. Because I am a true poet, and will remain so until my death, I will never stop flagellating myself with the disciplines, and never give up hope that someday by body will run with green or yellow blood. Anything is better than to remain seated in the window looking out on the same landscape. The light of any poet is contradiction. I haven’t tried to force my position on anyone — that would be unworthy of poetry. Poetry doesn’t need skilled practitioners, she needs lovers, and she lays down brambles and shards of glass for the hands that search for her with love.”
–Federico García Lorca, quoted in Harper’s, September 2004
Nader Naderpour was born in 1929 in Tehran. He studied literature at the Sorbonne in Paris during the 1950s and in Rome in the 1960s. He began publishing his poems in the 1940s and is counted among the leaders of the Modern Poetry movement in Iran, where he helped establish the Association of Writers of Iran in 1968. Before he fled his country in 1980, he worked for the Department of Arts and Culture and Iranian National Radio and Television; he also edited several literary magazines. The Islamic Republic of Iran banned publication and distribution of all Naderpour’s works after he left the country.
In France, where he first lived after going into exile, he was elected to the Author’s Association, and then, in 1986, he moved to the United States, where he lived until his death in 2000. All told, Naderpour is the author of ten volumes of poetry, and his work has been translated into English, French, German and Italian. In 1993, he was awarded a Hellman/Hammett Grant by Human Rights Watch and he is said to have been a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Mid nights, when I’m ill and awake
And no light is visible even from a pinhole
And the soft song of your deepest breaths
Accompanies the treble and bass of my heart
To the constant ticking of the clock,
Then I see that even if my thoughts are alone,
My heart, in the hollow of my chest is not.
Softly, I bend my head over your bedside
And lightly kiss your lashes, joined in sleep.
You feel the weight of this kiss on your eye and smile.
I kiss you cheek warm
And although the clamor of your laughter echoes in my ear,
In the dark waves of night,
Your laughing face does not manifest.
Quietly, I strike a match
To illuminate your face,
But soon, the red sulfuric spark,
Rising and falling upon my two blackened fingers,
Dies in the twist and turn of its dance
And again, dense darkness
Settles in our little bedchamber.
I tell myself: Aside from that brief instant–
The moment I glimpsed your dear face
–My eye does not have fortune enough to see.
Like a child fearing darkness,
I pave a path to your embrace
And petrified of something I can’t name,
I steal this whisper in your ear:
Kinder than all the world’s kindliest creatures!
Oh friend, sweetheart, mother, companion on this voyage!
Scream away so even stone-hearted death
Does not undo us in the promised moment!
For we both know that in a riotous
World of swarming crowds,
And of all that avails on the endless horizon,
If we have a destiny, it is our loneliness.
And this house, smaller than a boat, sails us–
The distressed – into the sea of exile.
But on the alarming horizon of the sea,
And reveals no path in darkness
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.