The Problem with Poets
Bill Long 12/27/04
Rarely have I enjoyed such an intellectual feast as in the last two days, since I have been poring over Bill Moyer's The Language of Life, a series of interviews Moyers conducted with about two dozen leading American poets about a decade ago. I felt awash in a cleansing sea of language, feeling that I had found people who treasured expression as much or more than I did, and who shared some common sentiments with me.
For example, I was struck with the truth of Stanley Kunitz's (then 90 years old) observation that "after 50, poems come out of your wilderness." Your "wilderness" is your untamed self, that self that you pretend doesn't exist, that self which consists of all that chaos locked behind the closet door, those memories "yammering in the dark (p. 245)." He is so right, I felt. You live in your wilderness after 50, aware of the truly horrible things that can and have happened in life, but still searching for threads of meaning, for stories of the past that vivify and affirm and give wisdom to the self and the world.
A Problem Emerges
But as I saw myself being drawn in to the Siren-like beauty of their language, I was caught up short by their comments, even complaints, that poetry was "of the common people," but that in general, people didn't appreciate poetry. People still have the impression that poetry is the preserve of an intellectual elite, who feel and live on a different plane than the rest of humanity. As poets they try to disabuse people of this notion, but it doesn't seem to be working.
It dawned on me while I was reading the poets why they are not popular, despite their being able to come up with arrestingly beautiful lines at times. They are unpopular because they expect you to divine their meaning in one or two sittings (or expect you to spend your life on their poem) when it might have taken them 15 years to write the lines they are expecting you to understand. That is, it sometimes took them 15 years of living, of shaving words, or blasting them, sanding them, or caressing them in order to say what they want to say. What the poets don't realize is that they cannot simply use the terms that come into their heads 15 years later and expect the world to understand what they say.
Let's look briefly at Donald Hall's White Apples to illustrate what I mean. He writes:
when my father had been dead a week
with his voice in my ear
I sat up in bed and held my breath
and stared at the pale closed door
white apples and the taste of stone
if he called again
I would put on my coat and my galoshes
Wow. Something profound is happening here, but we only learn in the interview that Hall wrestled with the poem for years, even publishing it with the different pronouns, until he was able to "finish" the poem. There is nothing wrong with taking 15 or so years to write a poem, but the thought in the middle--"white apples and the taste of stone" only came to him near the end of the process (p. 149-50). What he was trying to do, he tells us, is to capture his feelings he had after having a dream of his father appearing to him after his death and "calling outside by the front door." Hall never got out of bed, being frightened by this seemingly weird experience. The line "white apples and the taste of stone" is his attempt, seventeen years later, to come up with the right words to communicate his sense of fear at the time. It makes permanent the overwhelming dread that filled him at the time.
Ruminating on Hall and Others
Now that I know what Hall was trying to do I am completely enthralled by his poetic craft. I am engaged and amazed by his effort to let the experience of fear stay with him so long without being able to find the right words to express it. But here is the problem. When his poem is published or when the poems of countless other poets are published, they are almost invariably published with no comment, with no elucidation of struggle, with no explanation of what was the picture or image in view when they uttered the words.
Poets live because they are able to go from the precision of images in their mind to a precise expression of these images. When we only have access to the precise expression without the images that generated the expression, it is as if we are trying to listen into a phone conversation but can only hear one of the participants. Thus, we are left trying to "imagine" what the poet must have meant or to imagine an experience from our lives that might resonate with what we understand by the words. In either case it is a stretch, an almost insincere stretch of the mind.
In short, if poets are ever going to escape their isolation and play the role that they could play in society, they will have to do a little more explaining--they will have to learn how to create the rich contexts for their poems, and put these contexts as notes or explanatory introductions to their poems. They need to tell us that one line took them 15 years to write while another flowed off the tongue with rapidity. Bring us into the creative process; don't just give us the results and then shave off the human process that led you to the results! You then become the very opposite of what you claim you are--accessible to people.
So, Rita Dove, tell me about how your father was a black chemistry graduate of the university, with a master's degree, who was forced to operate the elevator at the corporation where other students whom he had helped with their chemistry now worked as chemists, tell me vividly the way your dad talked about this. Then, I will not only read the Elevator Man with insight and compassion, but I just might think you are the most noble individual I have met. If you don't give me the full context, the full background story, however, I will just think of you as playing with words for some strange reason, and unable, like most of humanity, to say what is really on your mind.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long