The Work of Poetry
The Summer issue of Free Verse: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry & Poetics marks the 25th issue of the journal. To celebrate it, I’m offering a special supplement on the theme of “The Work of Poetry.” I asked a wide variety of poets and translators to reflect on the work of poetry in a statement that might fit on a large postcard. I indicated that the theme—”The Work of Poetry—is deliberately ambiguous: it can be taken as referring to the work or effort it takes to produce poetry, or it can be taken as signifying the work that poetry wants to do in the world. Or other things I haven’t thought of.
Twenty eight responses came back; I am delighted to include them below. My thanks to the writers in the supplement—Jon Thompson.
Jennifer Atkinson is the author of four collections of poetry. The fourth and most recent book, Canticle of the Night Path, which won Free Verse’s New Measure Prize, came out in the winter of 2012. Individual poems have appeared in various journals including Field, Image, Witness, New American Writing, Terrain, Poecology, Cincinnati Review, Shenandoah, and The Missouri Review. She teaches in the MFA and BFA programs at George Mason University in Virginia.
The Work of Poetry or The Seven Stars of the Little Dipper
1. Working on a poem is like standing in a doorway. Standing and pressing out- and upward, up- and outward with your extended arms. You look like a proper fool. But now suddenly, almost exhausted, you let go and step through into one room or the other. Effortlessly, then, as if on their own, your arms just lift.
2. Working on a poem is like white-water rafting without oars, water, or raft.
3. Working on a poem is like digging garnets from a cliffside and setting them side by side by side in a line.
4. Working on a poem is like trying to see the 7th star of the little dipper on a partly cloudy night.
5. Working on a poem is like eating chocolate in the dark.
6. Working on a poem is like empathizing with a stranger.
7. Working on a poem is erasing one by one all but its several words from the dictionary.
Dan Beachy-Quick is the author of Circle’s Apprentice and A Brighter Word Than Bright: Keats at Work, among other works of poetry, criticism, and fiction. He is a Monfort Professor at Colorado State University where he teaches in the MFA Writing Program.
I suspect of poetry what Gerard Manley Hopkins claims for peace: “And when Peace here does house / He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo, / He comes to brood and sit.” The made-thing of a poem is not the work poetry does, but merely is—as of the made-thing that is a nest—a place where Poetry may house. Song must find a way to open within its very singing some silent space into which Poetry may arrive. Beyond the economies of meter, diction, syntax, line—these tense limits by which a poem functions—some absence opens secretly, and secretly it grows abundant, over-brimming. That “fine excess” works deep in Poetry. It keeps alive some quiet peace within the words a poem speaks; it blurs, with patience and audacity, word into world, heart into mind, silence into song. When Poetry here in the poem does house, it too comes with work to do. Not to coo. But to brood and sit. “Brood,” in its complexity, is right: to sit upon an egg so it will hatch, to think deeply upon. Poetry broods when it is at work. When we find ourselves the agents of that work, we also brood. We think upon the poem. Happily or unhappily, we think on it. Some among us walk away with meaning and feel their work is done. Others find themselves teased out of thought. They feel the flaw of the mind Poetry alone reveals—for as we brood on it, Poetry broods upon us. It warms to fever-pitch that egg, the mind—puts a crack in it, not to mock, but to disclose what secret work has plumed to life in us, growing there in our ignorance, beauty bountiful, truthfulness that shatters the idea from within, and so begins to sing.
Stephen Burt is Professor of English at Harvard; Stephen’s books include Belmont (poems), Close Calls with Nonsense (criticism), and, with David Mikics, The Art of the Sonnet (criticism). “Pastorale,” below, is a response to Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse”: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172057. You can read more of Stephen’s work, and more about Stephen, at www.closecallswithnonsense.com.
The beloved wool skirt, the beaten-down hooded sweatshirt
with its stamped-in unpronounceable band name,
the tasseled vintage spring-weight brand-name
cardigan with its ever-
wider lavender stripes, and other
woven things inertia tends to pull apart—
for such objects, it’s work
not only to stay together, but not to look hurt,
to appear, though worse for wear, never-
theless worn out of loyalty and love,
so that we take, from the loosening fabric, what memory will give,
possessions we already trust,
ways to recognize one another in wintery weather,
and not (the sheer patch of silver
on the checkerboard scarf admits) that we were just cold,
that we dressed in a rush, that we are just
like shepherds with one sheepfold,
who have one cloak, and no alternative.
Mairéad Byrne is the author of five poetry collections You Have to Laugh: New + Selected Poems (Barrow Street, 2013), The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven (Publishing Genius, 2010), Talk Poetry (Miami University Press, 2007), SOS Poetry (/ubu Editions, 2007), and Nelson & The Huruburu Bird (Wild Honey Press, 2003); also five poetry chapbooks. Collaborations with visual artists include Jennifer’s Family, photographs by Louisa Marie Summer (Schilt, 2012), Lucky, with illustrations by Abigail Lingford (Little Red Leaves, 2012), and three books with Irish painters. Mairéad left Ireland in 1994, and completed an MA in American Poetry (1996), and a PhD in Theory and Cultural Studies (2001), both at Purdue University. She was the cofounder, curator and emcee for couscous, a poetry/music/performance series which ran monthly for five years in Providence, where she is employed as Professor of Poetry + Poetics at Rhode Island School of Design, most recently serving as Chief Critic to RISD’s European Honors Program in Rome (July-December 2013).
255 Words for Jon
When I was pregnant with my second child, my partner remarked that pregnancy wasn’t work. It just happens to you. You don’t have to do anything. You just go along with it.
Try carrying a 25lb weight for a few months, I said, as you go about your work life, driving, running for a bus, housework, day in day out. But he was adamant.
My partner would have been more correct to say that labor is not work. In labor, I didn’t have the sense of agency I had in the daily work of pregnancy. Labor was a misnomer, a cataclysm, a machine into which I was inserted, with people in masks at the controls.
So what about that other great experience—creativity—conceptually modeled on the narrative, if not experience, of childbirth? An idea is conceived. There is a gestation period. Then, in a great frenzy of labor, the poem is produced.
I view metaphorical pregnancy much as my (former) partner viewed the real thing: It just happens to you. You make yourself available to it. It’s not work.
Yet I think of myself as being completely in the service of poetry, completely at its disposal. The economy of poetry is very strange. There are no wages but no investment makes a greater return.
You serve the poem when you write it, when you read it, when you send it out in the world. What it does out there is its own business. It’s a free agent. Every now and then you hear back.
Julie Carr is the author of six books of poetry, most recently 100 Notes on Violence (Ahsahta) and RAG (Omnidawn). Think Tank is forthcoming from Solid Objects Press. She is also the author of Surface Tension: Ruptural Time and the Poetics of Desire in Late Victorian Poetry. She teaches at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and lives in Denver where she helps to run Counterpath Press.
The Work of Poetry by way of St. Augustine
Great is the mouth and powerful and I am a particle of the mouth. The mouth gives me delight and the mouth resists my pride. My nerves are jumpy until I enter the mouth. Is it better to speak to the mouth or to go inside the mouth, to find out how it is? But what could it mean to speak to the mouth? Don’t I, in speaking to it, want it to enter me? But how can it enter me when it is so much greater than me? If I am a particle of the mouth, then the mouth can’t enter me, for it already is me or I it. So what, exactly, am I doing when I try to speak to mouth or get inside it?
Is there, somewhere that I am that is not inside the mouth? Not caged by its teeth, not pushed around by its tongue, not bathed in its spit? Or, conversely, is there more mouth than there is me? More mouth than there is space around the mouth, so that the mouth overflows its own self, overflows even its habitat? And if the mouth does pour out, does overflow, then does some part of the mouth fill the bed, fill the bedroom, fill the pen or the keyboard? And another part of the mouth cascade out the window, fall into the sink, run down the stairs? Or are all parts of the mouth everywhere at once, and if that is the case, how can I get inside the mouth (to calm myself), how can I feed from the mouth that might be everywhere? How can I cross over from no mouth to mouth?
Wet, red, weak, soft, and also incalcitrant, derisive, stupefied, formal, stable and incomprehensible, the mouth only takes. No matter what I do for the mouth, it wants more, and yet, the mouth is full.
Maxine Chernoff chairs the Creative Writing Department at SFSU. She is the author of 14 books of poems, most recently Here (Counterpath Press, 2014) and Without (Shearsman, 2012). She is the winner of a 2013 NEA Fellowship in Poetry and the 2009 PEN Translation Award for her co-translated Selected Poems of Friedrich Hoelderlin (Omnidawn, 2008). She also edits the journal New American Writing.
“The poem of the mind is the act of finding/ What will suffice.”—Wallace Stevens
“‘Form is what happens.’ It’s the fact of things in the world, however they are. So that form in that way is simply the presence of any thing.”—Robert Creeley
“Lord, increase my bewilderment.”—Fanny Howe
“Narrative is human time.”—Paul Ricoeur
The work of the poem is the work of this moment, 2:45pm, January 20, 2014, on which a life is celebrated and others are born and die as I finish this sentence. There is the small hum of a machine that runs on the melted bones of dinosaurs and the smell of cut vegetation. There is the taste of salt on my knuckle and glaciers melting in Alaska and fires in the south of my state. There are circumstances. There are feelings. There are connections to be made about memes and twerks and a Youtube version of Johnny Cash in 1963 at San Quentin Prison when all the prisoners were white. The poem lives now and in retrospect. The poem lives in an empire of great cruelty and wealth, where the average citizen is punished daily and not given what he needs— (Give us today our gluten-free bread). Wealth is concentrated in the top 1%, and the poem knows this too. The poem knows that drones hit targets as we speak. The poem knows that the last bee in the garden has its singular existence as it approaches the lily and is part of a community whose existence is threatened by a plague and pesticides, and yet it cannot present its own case to the world, hence Emily Dickinson. That is the work of the poem, to give voice to itself, to hold within itself the deep notions of the moment and the bewilderment of their vastness. The poem’s attention is also the poem’s ignorance. The poem is ignorant and beyond unkind to everything it omits. The poem cannot fulfill its duties of repairing the broken world all around it. The poem struggles to contain itself. The poem does not bleed to death or get crushed by an army. The poem is a negotiation. The poem sucks the nectar and returns to its hive.
Adam Clay is the author of A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World (Milkweed Editions, 2012) and The Wash (Parlor Press, 2006). A third book of poems, Stranger, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions. His poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Poetry Daily, Denver Quarterly, Iowa Review, New Orleans Review, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. He co-edits TYPO Magazine.
To compartmentalize without the promise
of form. To imagine trauma and its aftermath
in a moment of joy. To package a phrase
into a recognizable assertion, a feeling
as universal as light but never before felt.
To praise a single cricket’s survival. To mow
the yard haphazardly. To begin with no real
desire for either an ending or a start, though
in its movement forward lies the promise
of motion. To regret ever pausing. To pause
on a lake solid. To allow words without
the body, the body an absent reminder of our past.
Matthew Cooperman is the author of the text + image collaboration Imago for the Fallen World, w/Marius Lehene (Jaded Ibis Press, 2013), Still: of the Earth as the Ark which Does Not Move (Counterpath Press, 2011), DaZE(Salt Publishing Ltd, 2006) and A Sacrificial Zinc (Pleiades/LSU, 2001), winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize, as well as three chapbooks. A founding editor of Quarter After Eight, and co-poetry editor of Colorado Review, he teaches in the Creative Writing program at Colorado State University. He lives in Fort Collins with his wife, the poet Aby Kaupang, and their two children. More information at: www.matthewcooperman.com
The work of poetry. A heavy impossibility, the confusion of cruelty. To get it to lift, to speak. Many lies, and silence, whispers and reticence. How it lies there, takes a powder. A ponder of weight made credible by loss, the labor of lifting the loss. Edmond Jabès: “WIDE, the margin between carte blanche and the white page. Through the ear, we shall enter the invisibility of things.”
The work of poetry. A rote-island journey, or what word stirred in “the.” Chant-town, coast-road, etymolation, echolocation. The old stone work, legible witness, a shaman’s ridiculous mess. Examining the space between wires that are in fact letters, vacuum tubes. A chisel of parole that goes and goes choral. Zukofsky’s syncretic symphony, “an aerie of personation…desire for an inclusive object.”
The work of poetry. Placard-time, resist resist, conjuring rhyme out of hunger, something blood-red to throw at the man. Ernesto Cardenal comes down from the mountain—it is a volcano—and singes his guests: “Glory isn’t what the history books teach: / it’s a flock of buzzards in a field and a great stink.”
The work of poetry. Bird-speak, wing-work, a beauty-fan thrown at the corruptible guest. The body hungers for what is beyond its rope. “Truth is Beauty,” reverse, etc.
A reproach from what we do not know and know we must pass through in silence. Something finer, something to quicken flight. C.D. Wright: ” Poetry is the language of intensity. Because we are all going to die, an expression of intensity is justified.”
The work of poetry. Actual birds, the birds in the swamp at Nag’s Head, Um Qasaar. That they are there. So many edges to which we are drawn, the lurid ecotone. We read to know what is outside our world and write to remember it is also our world. Merill Gilfillan, “What a face / on that barred owl / dead beside the road– // Rolled it over to see. / Round, jolly, cowled. Lightly / Concentrically ringed, // The calm cosmonautical.”
John Felstiner wrote Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, and Can Poetry Save the Earth? / A Field Guide to Nature Poems. John has taught at Stanford since 1965, also at University of Chile, The Hebrew University at Jerusalem, & Yale University. He received many prizes for his work, and is a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
On an Asia Minor island facing the Aegean Sea, around the year 480 BCE (Before the Common Era), there was a Greek colony: Miletus. In Miletus a nude male statue was sculpted in white marble. Sometime later it was broken and lost, then discovered and repaired in the 2nd century BCE, this time for a Roman theater at Miletus. Twenty centuries later, in 1872, the sculpture was unearthed—now a torso, head and limbs lost. French philanthropists from the Rothschild family presented it to the Louvre museum in Paris.
Somewhere within the Louvre’s endless depths, in the early 1900s, Rainer Maria Rilke found that Male Torso. Being struck, he went back and back to the museum. His earlier “Panther” and “Carousel” poems follow the sculptor Auguste Rodin’s purpose: to observe human and other animals and everything, rather than personally dramatize them. An ancient torso’s discovery deserves that purpose even more deeply.
Why not “Archaic Torso of Apollo” for the poet’s title? Apollo, says Wikipedia, is seen as “a god of light and the sun, truth and prophecy, healing, plague, music, poetry, and more,” such as an ideal of youthful male beauty.
Here’s Rilke’s poem, among countless English versions spotting this terrain—plus the actual torso.
in which the eyeballs apple-ripened. Yet
his torso still glows like a streetlamp’s globe,
and inside, turned down low a while, his gaze
holds fast and shines. Otherwise the bend
of the breast could not blind you, or a smile
go through the gentle twisting of the loins
into that core that kept the seed alive.
Otherwise this stone would stand distorted
and cut short under the shoulders’ sheer fall,
and would not glimmer so, like wild beast hide,
and not be breaking out from all its sides
as from a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Changing my life, translator-wise, keeps happening, and will as long as I hold on.
Vona Groarke is an Irish poet. She has published six collections with Gallery Press, the latest being X, (2014), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. In the U.S., she publishes with Wake Forest University Press. Her poems have recently appeared in Yale Review, The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, The Guardian, The Times and Poetry Review. She teaches poetry in the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester in the UK.
I planted a garden
out the back,
turned it over
in my notebook.
Twelve poems I grafted,
a couple took.
This is not a metaphor.
This is work.
Carolyn Gunizio is the author of Spoke & Dark (Red Hen, 2012), Quarry (Parlor Press, 2008) and West Pullman (Bordighera, 2005). Find her online at http://carolynguinzio.tumblr.com/.
The work of poetry isn’t solitary. A poem might acknowledge that something happened, something is happening, something existed, something matters, or here is a place at which only this poem can arrive. In this project, the reader is a collaborator.
Certain poems I’ve read have elicited a great intensity of feeling, made the world of chaos and chance more meaningful, and I admit to being in love with the idea of a reader half-writing with me and experiencing something like that.
If an acknowledgement acknowledged where a poem first appeared in an altered form, it might say:
“The Breakable Surface Of Things” appeared as a bowl on the edge of the counter,
“The Leaves Have A Hold On Their Tree” appeared as a winged explosion of ants.
The reader’s acknowledgments are utterly their own. A poem first appears long before the poem finally appears, and then, the reader has done half the work.
The place at which the poem arrives might not be the same for the collaborators, but they can perhaps see each other, real or reflected, and wave across a not-too-great expanse.
Alex Houen‘s chapbook, Rouge States (www.oystercatcherpress.com/ahouen.html, was published by Oystercatcher in summer 2014. He has published poems in various magazines, including Horizon Review, PN Review, Snorkel, Shadowtrain, Stride, Past Simple, Free Verse, The Fortnightly Review, and Shearsman Magazine. He is co-editor of the online poetry journal Blackbox Manifold (http://www.manifold.group.shef.ac.uk/), and author of Powers of Possibility: Experimental American Writing since the 1960s (OUP, 2012, ). He teaches Modern Literature in the Faculty of English, and Pembroke College, University of Cambridge.
Postcard of Composition as Arrest
Always these days material breaks out of work for present
tense plus free indirect discourse forms a “live” tense.
This is a live recoding. Now it has horses in it.
Artillery horses hurling themselves out of panic burning
forest into freezing lake. In such instances even sea
waves are gripped rounded in the air. Now the heat
balance breaks with smell of rotting iron winning
over other smells. In such instances melancholy’s
anatomy will turn to autonomy. Machines have a country
dolphins have a country boots have a country even these
horses have a country. Now the water has snap frozen over
only their heads remain neighing above surface. Amazed,
mazed. Movements, moments. Writing as well as reading
demands slo-mo shaking and nodding of head simultaneously.
Now for rosy-fingered digital heads. Midst, mist. Head, had.
Ger Killeen is the author of several books of poetry including A Stone That Will Leap Over The Waves (Trask House); A Wren, winner of the Bluestem Award; and Signs Following and Blood Orbits both from Parlor Press. His work has been anthologized in From Here We Speak: Oregon Poetry (OSU Press), and in American Poetry: The Next Generation (Carnegie-Mellon University Press). Killeen is a winner of the 2006 Gertrude Stein Award for Innovative Poetry. He is a the poetry editor at The Habit of Rainy Nights Press in Portland, Oregon, and teaches at Marylhurst University. Beyond his literary interests he is an avid hiker, backpacker and amateur naturalist. He blogs at headlandia.blogspot.com.
Each poem works by being a small, precarious act of resistance to the world’s headlong rush towards duckspeak. It is a No! to the language of counter and signal, a nocturnal gnawing at the twisting and twining cables of programmable eloquence. The poem sets its frictional heat against the icy, paradoxically obfuscating clarity of the language that efficiently orders the turning of our entire planet into smoke. The poem is a Bartleby among the blips.
Thus, to write a poem or to engage fully as a reader with a poem is to actively interrupt at the level of language the coercive time regime that values instantaneousness, simultaneity, generality, and seamless exchangeability; it is to be inoperative, to be use-less to the work of commoditized language. A poem is the hardest un-work, the piecemeal unworking of the linguistic homogeneity on which contemporary capitalism relies.
The poem, therefore, works to repersonalize time: the time of the poem is a time where my attention is not commoditized and cellular; the time of the poem is where I’m given time to reframe my cognitive space in ways that allow my communal lifeworld to stand forth in all its sensual thickness, its history, its potential.
Precariousness is at the heart of the poem’s work: when Paul Celan noted that “poetry no longer imposes, it exposes itself”, he recognized the contemporary poem’s need to drop its rhetorical armor for the sake of redeeming language from deadly semantic reflexes, including the reflexes literary traditions; the poem from now on would walk a slack rope over an abyss of meaninglessness on the way to meaning. Precarious work indeed—from the Latin prex meaning “prayer”. Or, to put it another way, without the work of poetry we haven’t a prayer.
Yusef Komunyakaa‘s books of poetry include Taboo, Dien Cai Dau, Neon Vernacular, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize, Warhorses, The Chameleon Couch, and most recently Testimony. His plays, performance art and libretti have been performed internationally and include Saturnalia, Testimony, and Gilgamesh. He teaches at New York University.
The Work of Orpheus
He blows a ram’s horn at the first gate of the third kingdom, & one would swear it sounds like questions in the air. He walks down a troubadour’s path that comes to a halt as if his song has broken in half, standing on cobblestones that stop before tall waves below. Whatever was here is now gone, except for a percussive whisper of mail & swords. He knows the sea is a keeper of records. Gazing up at the sun, he shakes his head & walks towards a refugee camp with a sack of beans, bread, dried tomatoes & fish, where he plays “Hallelujah” on a toy trumpet. He knows they hate a bugle blown at dawn, or the sound of taps. A sloping path toward the center of town leads him to a prison made of river stones & thatch. The faces behind bars wait for him. Does he dare to raise his reed flute to his lips this mute hour? The sun sinks like a clarion, an old war cry across windy grass or questions in the air. He goes to the rear door of the slaughterhouse & plays his Pan fife till the flies go, as the workers speak of days they drank rosewater. He heads down along the creek’s muddy bank, finds a fallen tree, sits & raises the clay flute to his lips. A magpie lands on a branch a foot away. He stops playing, whispers to his messenger, Okay, now go out there & tell them.
Éireann Lorsung is the author of Music For Landing Planes By (Milkweed 2007), Her Book (Milkweed 2013), and Sweetbriar (dancing girl press, 2013). Recent poems have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Burnside Review, Colorado Review, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. Now she is at work on a novel about archives and earthquakes, pieces of which can be found in Two Serious Ladies, DIAGRAM, Mandala, and Bluestem. She edits 111O and co-runs MIEL, a micropress (miel-books.com).
Some notes toward a work of poetry
if [work of poetry]
if [work] [poetry]
if [poetry] = [making X]
not to assign or direct [what is: poem]
if [work] = [purpose ± procedure ± process ± retrospect]
if [time] | [making time] if [retrospect] + [purpose] situated within [culture] if [culture] = [assumed value] if [assumed | assigned value] = [A-art] [W-writing]
then [work of poetry] ≠ [universal | eternal] then [work of poetry] = [situational | relative | mutable] then [I] who [works] is a [situated I]
if [page] = [clearing] [cit. Toni Morrison, Baby Suggs, Beloved]
if [poem] = arrival to [clearing]
if [clearing] = [possible]
then [work] = [make possible] | [arrive (transitive) possible (noun)]
then [work] ≠ [assumed | assigned value]
if [arrival] not only for [I]
then [work] = [open space] | [hold space] not to assign or direct [what is: possible] | [for whom: possible] but [open]
I feel from poetry a commandment to make space not only for myself but for whoever will come, without condition or expectation insofar as I can do this; to stave off despair by fiercely asserting and practicing the openness of that space; to resist assignation of value based on perceptions of productivity or usefulness; to welcome the stranger.
Joseph Massey is the author of Areas of Fog (Shearsman Books, 2009), At the Point (Shearsman Books, 2011), To Keep Time (Omnidawn, 2014) and Illocality (Wave Books, forthcoming in 2015). He lives in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts.
To articulate an otherwise inexplicable effort to locate oneself simultaneously in place and in language. The world is only separated from the word by a single letter. I think that’s a kind of vow. To cultivate that vow. To reject the whirlwind of conceptual static — the fashionable noise. To not succumb to apathy. To notice. What’s there. What isn’t there. To say it; to account for it.
Medbh McGuckian was born and still lives in Belfast. Taught in University by Seamus Heaney. First three collections published by Oxford University Press and thereafter with Gallery Press, Ireland. Teaches Creative Writing at Queen’s University, latest book The High Cuaul Cap won a Cholmondley award in 2013.
We do not work on our poetry. Our poetry works on and in us. It is like the sea. Everyone can go there. It has all those different moods and flow and flux. It sustains us and challenges and tests and cleanses and renews and drowns us. It comes most strongly from the past writers who struggled and were hungry and in love and are now at peace but left us the pictures. It moves most painfully in the young and the child who do not know what it is but recognise its pull and promise. It is hard to be faithful to it when it seems to have abandoned us. To immerse ourselves in the poems of others as one has to or wants to lessens our certainty of our own grasp on the ropes of our ship. When a huge important craft like that of Heaney founders, we stare into the empty space and wonder what did he say, what did he mean, how has his work ceased when it was never ending. And then we turn to it and return to it and possess it and are swamped by it and our belief in our true identity is restored by time’s repeal, by the trace of the mind at all its many ages, by the sympathy and warmth that stirs in a beloved voice that death has not quelled.
Eric Pankey is the author of ten collections of poetry, most recently Dismantling the Angel from Free Verse Editions. A new collection, Crow-Work, is due from Milkweed Editions in 2015.
THE WORK OF POETRY or AN IMAGINARY PLANE OF GLASS PARALLEL TO SEA LEVEL
after Walter De Maria
It takes so little: a ball of twine, a stick, and box to make a trap; an inkblot on folded paper to render two bears pursued by a dragon, (or is that the moon propped and slumped on twin crutches?); a sharp edge to engrave a mask a dancer might wear to court the rain; the upper quarter of a stone sphere to set a shallow dome above a shallow pit, lit and aglow with the feeble light and dull warmth of an ossuary; a bed of nails on which to rest a sheet of glass
John Peck‘s ten books of poems include Collected Shorter Poems (Northwestern U. P., 2003), Red Strawberry Leaf (U. of Chicago, 2005), Contradance (U. of Chicago, 2011), and I Came, I Saw: Eight Poems (Shearsman, 2012). He is a co-translator of Jung’s The Red Book (Norton, 2009), the editor of Jung’s seminar on Dream Interpretation Ancient and Modern (Princeton U. P., in press), an analyst practicing in Brunswick, Maine, and a translator-editor for the Philemon Foundation.
Rosanna Warren has written recently that genuine poems perform real intellectual and emotional work. They may not change the writer, but they give evidence of change pushing at the door, at least. Asked by an older person just what dreams were all about, Carl Jung replied that whatever else they do, dreams change an initial energy state into a different one; that is, they map real work that ought to happen. Osip Mandelshtam, implored by a young man about his new poem, replied that poetry had not yet made love there, the sheets remained unrumpled. So a victory (laurel) in some kind of contention between powers (Hopkins called that tussle and its tenor “pitch”) meets the sweaty, easing outcome. And something old or foundational (archaic), even as compact as a quickened semantic root, enters in to renew things. And it’s all not necessarily nice (it is rude), and it correspondingly dispenses with inessentials (rude again: “erudition” describes the clearing away of rubbish). “Laurel, archaic, rude:” Yvor Winters’s own final phrase in “On Teaching the Young.”
Adam Piette teaches at the University of Sheffield in the UK, and co-edits Blackbox Manifold (http://www.manifold.group.shef.ac.uk/
Poetry works its secret ministry like frost upon a landscape, at night, secretly reconfiguring the shapes of things, crystallizing life in words into shining, sudden clusters: worked as if by other lifeforms than our own. It may also reconfigure our imagination, political, erotic, familial, species-instinctual, through the staging of dramas at work at the back of our minds, or screened (as if a fancy of pure ‘out-of-work’ leisureliness) in the mind’s cinema. The work done on and in the world is only as significant as child’s play, as language game, as communal fiction: yet it has epic dimensions, lyric life-altering ambitions, comic subterfuge energies. Poetry works to change minds, to cross us, engage us, surprise us; and when it works it works. Two ideas of the work poetry does dominate a schizoid culture now: that it either ministers to the daily ordinary feelings we all of us always already have; or that it delves into consciousness through displaying what binds the mind to language, as rhetoric, as experimental play. But, on either side of that giant ideological fence, good work works on both sides: the poem ministers to feeling, always; and it is always about the mind’s attachments to the matrices of language. Let both work together.
Atsuro Riley is the author of Romey’s Order (Chicago, 2010), recipient of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, the Whiting Writers’ Award, The Believer Poetry Award, and the Witter Bynner Award from the Library of Congress. He lives in San Francisco.
‘The forking shoots’
Isn’t poetry as unkillable as kudzu.
Greens us through—by remembering us to our language. Ever-bining and -burgeoning
so we can’t erode.
Peter Riley was born into an environment of working people in the Manchester area in 1940 and now lives in retirement in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, having previously lived in Cambridge for many years. He has been a teacher, bookseller, and a few other things and is the author of some fifteen books of poetry, and two of prose concerning travel and music. His most recent book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet 2011). Heregularly contributes reviews of new poetry to the website The Fortnightly Review (fornightlyreview.co.uk) .
At this precise moment, before the art gets completely swamped in immense hordes of trained poets all earnestly deploying their psychologies as if they were political weapons…
Let there be a few lonely stakeholders here and there across the continents insisting that what the world wants from you is not your psychology but your perceptions, framed as objective tokens in which others can participate because recognisable. Whether in avant-garde babble or stately sentences makes no difference, though the latter has increasingly a better chance of survival.
I also retain the unorthodox view that you do not mend the world by messing up the common language, that that is a false and arrogant correlation, but that we do retain a right to make leaps and somersaults across the transmissive terrain in daring and dexterity — darts sent out against the human mind’s constant gravitation towards inertia.
Well, that’s roughly the way I’d want to encourage these days. I consider poetry in the English-language zones to have been more or less wrecked in the last fifty years by linguistic philosophy and libraries of theory against which I have protected myself by knowing nothing about them. They might have offered many useful insights if they hadn’t been dragged onto the stage as a part of the act.
For it’s a show. It’s an entertainment. It’s a spectacle. It’s song and story and always was. It becomes serious on its own stage, as a performance, an elegant construct, a heartening transcript. The work now is to regain lyricism and narrative in as broad a field as possible. And dump all the baggage.
The work of the poem is to sacrifice gravity for weather.
Inside a vessel, capsizing,
capsizing, inside the weather, the poem
is nauseous, righting itself over
again; comprehends that it is surrounded—what
was gravity, ever, what was
gravity, how it safely drew the work to ground, the
vessel, the overturned thing its sought to
be, queasy imbalance of the inner
ear perched one second before
the atmosphere’s gigantic rip and pull.
Bruce Smith is the author of six books of poems, including The Other Lover (University of Chicago), which was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, Songs for Two Voices, and Devotions.
Transference, isn’t that the poet’s work? Or Countertransference. The process by which the experience/feeling is redirected to the reader in a kind of black market exchange of sometimes disowned and unbearable material. It’s the work of fix and repair that finds its emblem for me in the Bronx car repair shops where Chino and Heavy hustle to perform a brake job, body work, or alter your alternator. Street repairs that are illegal but essential for motion. Like Adorno said, “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime.” It’s often wrong to the world or at least has an extravagant departure from the right course. It’s a fugitive act [as in music and psychology] that can also be an act of Zen attention. And all the poet has to work with is memory, philology and cherubim [Dickinson], and dah-Dum, dah-Dum.
Michael Smith is a Dublin poet and translator whose Collected Poems was published by Shearsman Books (Bristol) in 2009. His translations of Spanish and South American poets, many in collaboration with Luis Ingelmo, are numerous and have been critically acclaimed. The latest collection of his own poems, Prayers for the Dead & Other Poems, will be published by Shearsman in 2014. Also appearing from Shearsman in 2014 is Selected Poems of the Spanish Renaissance poet Fernando de Herrera. He is a member of Aosdána, the Irish National Academy of Artists.
Reading the lives of the poets is not generally a very cheerful experience. Poor Chatterton, poor Keats, poor Hart Crane, Berryman, Lowell, Randall Jarrell, poor Georg Trakl. Rimbaud abandoned poetry at an age when most aspiring young poets have hardly begun writing. Years ago, the stalwart Edmund Wilson speculated that the writing of poetry was an obsolete occupation; yet W.H. Auden could assert that poets were the antennae of the race.
One conclusion I draw from this, to mention no more, is that the writing of poetry can be a dangerous occupation. Personally, I have met more unhappy poets than people who follow other occupations. Despite this, poetry continues to be written. Many are happy to write confessional poetry, some descriptive. The choice will always be personal.
The reasons for this are beyond discussion in this brief space. Personally I have been writing poetry for more than fifty years, and I continue to do so.
The best answer I can give for this is that I lost my religious faith at a very early age but I must confess that I never lost my desire for transcendence, in some sense. I continued to believe, however, that poetry was my best means of discovering at least the possibility of transcendence. Not by philosophy nor by any of the major religions. Thus, poetry has a very real function for me.
Language is the supreme achievement of homo sapiens; and poetry is its most intense and open-minded use of language. So that was my choice. And I don’t regret that.
Have I been successful? The honest answer so far is negative. But I persist. In hope. Is there a hint of religion in my poetry. I honestly don’t know.
Susan Stewart‘s most recent books are Red Rover, a book of poems, and The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook on Making, a book of prose.
The work of poetry is known through poems themselves and always unfinished.
Like all work, poetry transforms nature; its specific task is anthropomorphizing human nature.
Poetry arises from our physical and metaphysical being alike; our thoughts and feelings, our imaginary and lived experience alike, are held in its history.
The rhythms of poetry are work songs released from utility; the metaphors of poetry are the foundation of all our institutions—those that exist and those not yet born.
Poetry is the freest, most creative form, of our freest, most creative accomplishment: the invention and nurturing of language.
Poetry saves us from the Gorgon face of reality.
Like birdsong, poetry awakens and changes us; unlike birdsong, it weaves ceaseless inference.
John Wilkinson‘s most recent book is Reckitt’s Blue (Seagull). His selected poems, Schedule of Unrest, will be published by Salt in September 2014.
The work of poetry has been matutinal for me throughout my working life, beginning with the necessary doing of it before I commuted to hospital or hostel. From time to time I become disorientated, as a bird might be by light pollution, and resume writing late at night, but almost always writing starts in the early morning, when some of the motility of dream encounters a lucidity that never survives lunch (and might be delusory). Such morning labour is a pleasure, more often than not, so when I reviewed the choice of my Selected Poems it seemed peculiar that most of the poetry should look gloomy. As the sun rises it sinks in verse. Evidently though pleasure comes from the rare experience of unalienated work rather than from direct connection with the poem’s affect. The poem is an affective accumulator. It soaks up what pools, drips, leaks and meanders and hangs in the air; the poem does this work and can become miserable or enraged as I continue to exercise my labour on it in good cheer.
Matthew Zapruder is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Sun Bear (Copper Canyon, 2014). An Assistant Professor in the St. Mary’s College of California MFA program and English Department, and an Editor-at-Large at Wave Books, he lives in Oakland, CA.
Hi Jon, thanks for asking me to write something about “The Work of Poetry.” As you know, I wrote you a little prose poem. At the time, I liked it, and thought it answered some questions. So I sent it along. But when I saw it getting ready to enter the public world, along with all these other writers whose poems and prose I find so interesting and honest, I had a very different feeling. The poem seemed kind of strained, as if I was imagining I was imagining something, and not just imagining. One of my favorite quotes from Stevens is what he says about the problem with my beloved surrealists: “to make a clam play the accordion is to invent, and not to discover.” I have thought about this a lot, and I really do agree that the true work of poetry is to discover. What this means to me is, to find something genuine in the deep communal and also individual wisdom of language, and to bring it out through the mechanism of the poem. When I’m doing that work, I feel I’m “discovering,” and when I haven’t done it yet, I am “inventing.” Those “invented” poems just feel empty to me when I go back and look at them, as if I haven’t done my work yet. I certainly didn’t feel that way when I sent you the poem. But I also know for me a big important part of the work of poetry is to wait, be patient, put poems in a drawer, and then look at them honestly after some time has gone by. Maybe most poems need to go through an invented stage first, on the way to discovery. Anyway, that’s what I know now about the poem I sent you. So I hope you don’t mind using this note instead. Thanks, in solidarity, Matthew