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Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt

Politics, feminism, culture, books and daily life.

Perils of the Poetry Reading

Am I the only person who finds it hard to follow an unfamiliar poem when I hear it read out loud and don't have the text in front of me? Even when reading to myself at my own pace, I might have to go over a poem several times to really get it, but at a reading, the poems whizz by unstoppably-- no chance of a second hearing, and all the helpful visual cues of print , like punctuation, italics, quotation marks, and even line breaks, are absent. A stray thought enters my head -- I wonder why they painted this room turquoise? -- and in seconds I've lost the thread. (I'm speaking of what you might call "literary poetry" here, poetry written primarily to be read silently, not spoken word, which is intended for the ear from the outset.)

I often find that the poems I've enjoyed most at a reading seem oddly flat on the page when I hunt them down in a book. What made the poem seem striking and fresh was the poet's performance: the energy and especially the humor was in the voice and manner and gestures, not the words themselves. Or it was the story the poem told: the poetry reading as a series of anecdotes, with the poet placing and embellishing each one in his introductions: My uncle ran a chicken farm in Iowa, and when he ran off with the Methodist minister's wife my aunt killed all the chickens and gave them to the nuns, and out of that comes this next poem, "Saint Rooster and the Holy Choir of Hens." it's been suggested, in fact, that the proliferation of poetry readings, and their importance to a poet's career, has actually changed the way poets -- "literary poets" -- write, encouraging verbal simplicity, talkiness, easy emotions, simple narratives, and punchlines. It's the poet as stand-up comedian/tragedian.

Still, you can see why poets would try to shape their art to please their audience -- and notice how we now commonly speak of poetry's audience rather than poetry's readers, which tells you something right there. It can be painful and embarrassing to stand up before a small group of miscellaneous strangers who expect you to entertain them and instead offer poems they might find bewildering, or remote. I've given readings at which I just want to say, oh well, never mind, let's just go have a beer and talk about health care reform.

Wislawa Szymborska's "Poetry Reading" (translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh) may be the definitive account of a reading at its awful, humiliating worst. To paraphrase the old Jewish joke about the Catskills hotel ("The food is terrible!" "Yes, and the portions are so small!"), the audience is not only tiny, it's not even listening. And yet, Symborska disperses her pity, her warmth and her satirical humor so evenly among poets and audience members and even the muse, poor thing, that what in lesser hands would be just another complaint about the world's indifference to art becomes a gesture of understanding, forgiveness, love.

POETRY READING

To be a boxer, or not to be there
at all. O Muse, where are our teeming crowds?
Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare --
it's time to start this cultural affair.
Half came inside because it started raining,

the rest are relatives. O Muse.

The women here would love to rant and rave,
but that's for boxing. Here they must behave.
Dante's Inferno is ringside nowadays.
Likewise his Paradise. O Muse.

Oh, not to be a boxer but a poet,
one sentenced to hard shelleying for life,
for lack of muscles forced to show the world
the sonnet that may make the high-school reading lists
with luck. O Muse,
O bobtailed angel, Pegasus.

In the first row, a sweet old man's soft snore:
he dreams his wife's alive again. What's more,
she's making him that tart she used to bake.
Aflame, but carefully--don't burn his cake!
we start to read. O Muse.

*****The Mind-Body Problem, poems by Katha Pollitt, is just out from Random House.

A Friend Reports from a Town Hall Meeting

(Claire Moses, professor of women's studies at the University of Maryland, describes the town hall meeting on health care held by Democratic Rep. Jim Moran in Reston, Virginia, on August 25. Sounds pretty wild! Note that even when progressives make up the majority of the audience, the antis steal the show.--KP)

I just came from a Town Hall Meeting run by our congressional representative (Jim Moran, a progressive--favors the public option, etc.). He had Howard Dean with him to give a pep talk and to answer questions. One thing that the friends I was with all mentioned was that we have never been at such a political event where opposing sides were in attendance. We're so used to campaign rallies and civil rights, reproductive rights, and anti-war demonstrations--all of which give off good vibes because we're among so many people we agree with. Of course, there are the hecklers along the sides--but they're not participants. This was quite a bit different.

The event started at 7 p.m. The doors opened at 6, but MoveOn.org had suggested we get there before 5, and it's a good thing we did because the lines already snaked around and around. I don't know if we could have gotten in if we'd come any later. While waiting in line, we saw lots of protestors who were part of Lyndon Larouche's group (he lives around here; I don't know if their anti-Obama hate campaign is national). They had the Obama signs with the Hitler moustache. But I don't think they actually came into the meeting--just walked up and down the waiting line. (I believe that the doorkeepers were checking to see if everyone entering was from this Congressional District; but they obviously failed in at least one significant case--so I don't know how carefully they tracked this.)

Inside, the significant majority was progressive--and not just on healthcare: some of the people circling the auditorium had anti-war, anti-military signs and they got big applause. (Jim Moran voted against the Iraq war.) But there was also a significant minority against healthcare reform--with the expected anti-"socialism" or "we can't afford it" signs. None of the "anti" signs were too, too horrific. Not like the Larouchees outside with their Obama=Hitler signs. But there was a lot of chanting back and forth. And the antis tried hard to interrupt Moran. But still nothing horrific.

And then Moran introduced Dean--who got a resounding standing ovation from the audience. We quieted down...he began to speak...and before we knew what was happening stood up in the center of the auditorium and started screaming "we won't pay for murder"--or something like that. One man, in the center of the group, was standing on a chair--looking like an orchestra leader--and immediately Moran recognized him and named him: it was Randall Terry! It was amazing! I do believe that they were after Dean--because they did nothing to protest, or participate in the anti-healthcare reform chants, or any interrupting until Dean started to speak. (Moran votes always in favor of whatever reproductive rights issue might come up in the House, but Terry's group didn't interrupt his almost hour-long talk.) Anyway--Moran told the audience who he was, and everyone (well, I suppose not "everyone") started chanting "go home." Moran actually offered him an opportunity to talk: offered him the choice of asking his question (offered him 5 minutes!) or he would be escorted out of the auditorium. Since Terry didn't choose to ask a question, he and his entire entourage were escorted out and calm was restored and that was that. Of course, there were more interruptions--but at least it was from the group that opposed healthcare reform.

The question-and-answer portion of the meeting was worthless. Moran took questions equally from the pro- and the anti- groups-but none of the questions were enlightening in either direction. And I have to say, if I were opposed to reform, I'd have been upset by the way Moran cut them off.

The one thing I can say, though, is that after this meeting I have a much better idea of what's in the House bill that is most likely to be passed (H.R. 3200).

On the other hand, some of the sloganeering--on our side--bothers me, because it is just plain wrong. The purpose is supposed to be to reassure people who fear "change," but all it does is water down the importance of the change. For example, Moran talked about the problems with the insurance companies and how some of the regulations and minimum standards and the existence of the public option will rein them in. He even talked about the horrors of insurance denied, etc. Then he said that "85% of Americans are covered by private health insurance and they needn't worry that anything for them will change." You've heard this same statement from Obama--how can they be so stupid as to keep repeating this "nothing will change" statement! There were other things like this: "no employer can make any employee take the public option." But what happens when employers drop health insurance, as so many have done and more will do? won't that "force" employees into the public option? Not that I'm opposed to the public option--but this kind of talking out of both sides cannot help our case.

Voting in Kabul

(Women for Afghan Women, a humanitarian organization I've supported for many years, runs a shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence in Kabul, and a smaller one in Mazar-i-sharif. In this update to her August 19th letter detailing the anxiety leading up to election day, WAW executive director Manizha Naderi reports on voting in Afghan elections on August 20. For more information about WAW, and to make a donation, go here.)

Dear WAW Supporters:

Thank you for all the supportive emails we have received since my last update a few days ago.

All of you have probably heard from news reports, the elections went on as planned and with far fewer violent attacks than we all expected. The Afghan news reports said that there were 135 rocket attacks around Afghanistan and about 20 people were killed.

Our centers, staff and clients were safe. There were no incidents. Now we are all waiting for the announcement of the winner. The government has forecasted that there will be demonstrations. I might close the Kabul Family Guidance Center for another few days when that happens.

On election day I went to vote. I went with my husband, his sister Naseema, her two sons, and also my babysitter Nafis Gul and her daughter. Everything was peaceful. Turnout was low. Besides us there were 4 other men there to vote. This was the first time that Nafis gul and Naseema were voting. I was very excited for them.

While I was at the polls there were no other women there besides us. But from what we've heard, women showed up at the polls everywhere. More women voted in the North than in the South (for obvious reasons). The Taliban had threatened anyone who voted and had ink on their fingers. They said that they will cut that finger. Even then these brave people went out to vote. But overall voter turnout was lower than last time.

It was incredibly empowering to vote. It was my first time to vote in Afghanistan. It was even more empowering for Nafis Gul and Naseema. This was their first time to vote in their lives. They didn't know what to expect. Before the elections I had spoken to them about how important it was to vote. I told them that if they didn't vote, they couldn't complain later about the results. So it was like their birthday. It was very special.

Everyone is now waiting for the results. People are afraid if Karzai wins, then Dr. Abdullah's people are going to hold violent demonstrations.

Karzai--we've seen what he's done already. His major plan if he wins is to negotiate with the Taliban-which WAW is against.

Dr. Abdullah--His major flaw is that he was a warlord during the civil wars. WAW stands in solidarity with leaders like Malalai Joya who risked her life by denouncing the presence of warlords in the institutions which govern the nation. Men who have killed and raped have no place in the government, let alone as President.

Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai--He's the most qualified although he probably won't win the election. In the TV debates, Mr. Ahmadzai won every debate. He has really good plans for the economy. He's the only person who talked a little about bringing women into the government.

I was dismayed that all candidates downplayed women's roles. It was like they didn't want to talk about women. Both Karzai and Dr. Abdullah have claimed victory. People think that if Karzai wins Dr. Abdullah's people will become violent.

I am happy that the election took place, but since it looks like Karzai is going to win, I am not very hopeful. We will have the same old again. More corruption and wasting money. This time, he'll negotiate with the Taliban. Hopefully I'll be wrong about him. Women here are angry that Karzai signed the Shi'ia law in such a stealthy way right before the elections. We are waiting to see the full text of the law that was signed before we make an official WAW comment.

I will write again soon about the two clients who arrived in our shelter on the night before election day. Our drivers drove them from the police station to the shelter in the middle of the night. I will be meeting them today.

It is a huge comfort to know that our supporters are now beginning to hear more about our day to day work in Afghanistan and the tensions and challenges of doing work in a war zone. I am grateful to each one of you for caring. Do send us a donation if you can, as much or as little as you can.

Manizha Naderi
Executive Director, Women for Afghan Women

Letter from Kabul

(Women for Afghan Women, a humanitarian organization I've supported for many years, runs a shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence in Kabul, and a smaller one in Mazar-i-sharif. In this urgent letter, Manizha Naderi details local conditions as the country prepares to vote on August 20th. I'm reprinting it here with WAW's permission. For more information about WAW, and to make a donation, go here.)

Wonderful Supporters of WAW,

Writing this quickly because internet keeps failing. Security isreally bad in Kabul. Yesterday there were 2 suicide bombings and 6rockets attacks. Today 5 suicide bombers were holding up a bank in thecity. They were killed along with 4 police men. And I have beenhearing the sounds of rockets all day today but the media is notallowed to report on any violence until after the elections.

I have been under a lot of stress lately. I have over 100 staffmembers and 112 people in our shelters to keep safe.

For the past two weeks, our staff have stayed in the office and wehave not been doing home visits to clients. Starting today our centersare closed, and staff has been asked to stay at home. I've asked ourdrivers to take the cars home with them so if there are anyemergencies, they can get to the shelter fast.

We currently have 68 women and 12 children in the Kabul shelter and 32women and 4 children in the Mazar shelter. Last night the policecalled us and referred 2 new cases to us.

We have tried to ensure the participation of women in the elections.We have helped many women (our clients who are living at home ratherthan in our shelters) get registered to vote. I have also encouragedour staff to vote on election day.

We cannot take the women from the shelter to vote on election day. Itwill simply be too dangerous. Also I don't want people in theneighborhood to find out that a lot of women are living in one house.

I will try and send another update soon. Thank you all for caringabout this beleaguered country and it's women and girls. Please prayfor us during these terrifying days.

Manizha Naderi
Executive Director, Women for Afghan Women

Perils of the Poetry Reading

Am I the only person who finds it hard to follow an unfamiliar poem when I hear it read out loud and don't have the text in front of me? Even when reading to myself at my own pace, I might have to go over a poem several times to really get it, but at a reading, the poems whizz by unstoppably-- no chance of a second hearing, and all the helpful visual cues of print , like punctuation, italics, quotation marks, and even line breaks, are absent. A stray thought enters my head -- I wonder why they painted this room turquoise? -- and in seconds I've lost the thread. (I'm speaking of what you might call "literary poetry" here, poetry written primarily to be read silently, not spoken word, which is intended for the ear from the outset.)

I often find that the poems I've enjoyed most at a reading seem oddly flat on the page when I hunt them down in a book. What made the poem seem striking and fresh was the poet's performance: the energy and especially the humor was in the voice and manner and gestures, not the words themselves. Or it was the story the poem told: the poetry reading as a series of anecdotes, with the poet placing and embellishing each one in his introductions: My uncle ran a chicken farm in Iowa, and when he ran off with the Methodist minister's wife my aunt killed all the chickens and gave them to the nuns, and out of that comes this next poem, "Saint Rooster and the Holy Choir of Hens." it's been suggested, in fact, that the proliferation of poetry readings, and their importance to a poet's career, has actually changed the way poets -- "literary poets" -- write, encouraging verbal simplicity, talkiness, easy emotions, simple narratives, and punchlines. It's the poet as stand-up comedian/tragedian.

Still, you can see why poets would try to shape their art to please their audience -- and notice how we now commonly speak of poetry's audience rather than poetry's readers, which tells you something right there. It can be painful and embarrassing to stand up before a small group of miscellaneous strangers who expect you to entertain them and instead offer poems they might find bewildering, or remote. I've given readings at which I just want to say, oh well, never mind, let's just go have a beer and talk about health care reform.

Wislawa Szymborska's "Poetry Reading" (translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh) may be the definitive account of a reading at its awful, humiliating worst. To paraphrase the old Jewish joke about the Catskills hotel ("The food is terrible!" "Yes, and the portions are so small!"), the audience is not only tiny, it's not even listening. And yet, Symborska disperses her pity, her warmth and her satirical humor so evenly among poets and audience members and even the muse, poor thing, that what in lesser hands would be just another complaint about the world's indifference to art becomes a gesture of understanding, forgiveness, love.

POETRY READING

To be a boxer, or not to be there
at all. O Muse, where are our teeming crowds?
Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare --
it's time to start this cultural affair.
Half came inside because it started raining,

the rest are relatives. O Muse.

The women here would love to rant and rave,
but that's for boxing. Here they must behave.
Dante's Inferno is ringside nowadays.
Likewise his Paradise. O Muse.

Oh, not to be a boxer but a poet,
one sentenced to hard shelleying for life,
for lack of muscles forced to show the world
the sonnet that may make the high-school reading lists
with luck. O Muse,
O bobtailed angel, Pegasus.

In the first row, a sweet old man's soft snore:
he dreams his wife's alive again. What's more,
she's making him that tart she used to bake.
Aflame, but carefully--don't burn his cake!
we start to read. O Muse.

Lubna Hussein, Hero

 

When the subject of Islamic dress comes up, it's often phrased the way President Obama put it in his Cairo speech -- as women's right to wear what they want. Hear, hear. But what about those pesky laws that force women to wear what the theocrats want-- or face arrest and a beating? Iran and Saudi Arabia are not the only countries with a government-enforced dress code.

As has been widely reported, 13 Sudanese girls and women listening to music in a Khartoum cafe were arrested on July 3-- for wearing trousers. Never mind that that in much of the Muslim world, for example Pakistan and Turkey, pants are normal traditional garb. Article 152 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits "indecency" in dress without defining what it is, was invoked in all its rigor. 1o of the 13 women accepted a plea bargain -- ten lashes and a fine. But journalist and UN press officer Lubna Hussein, and two others insisted on going to trial-- even though losing in court will mean forty lashes and a much bigger fine. In fact, Hussein resigned her UN post so as not to have immunity -- she wants to win this battle on principle, not a technicality, and have the dress-code law abolished. ""I will take my case to the upper court, even to the constitutional court," she told The Guardian . "And if they find me guilty, I am ready to receive not only 40 lashes, I am ready for 40,000 lashes. If all women must be flogged for what they wear, I am ready to be flogged 40,000 times."

What a hero! I'm in awe of this woman's courage and daring. Her case has given heart to Sudanese women and men sick of the harsh Sharia law that has been in force in Sudan since l989, when President Omar al-Bashir seized power in a coup. Large demonstrations outside the courthouse in support of the women were put down violently by police. The story of Lubna Hussein has made headlines around the world.

As usual, Western feminists have beeen charged with going AWOL on human rights for Muslim women , most recently by Susie Mesure in The Independent, who accused "the sisterhood" of being overly concerned with their own trivial issues, like sexist men's magazines and "perceived discrimination in the workplace." Before this canard hardens into conventional wisdom, let me note that in fact, there's been a fair amount of coverage of Lubna Hussein in the feminist blogosphere, including The Women's Media Center, The F-Word and -- wait for it -- Jezebel, Gawker's much maligned potty-mouthed younger sister.

But of course there can always be more.

You can sign the Arab Women's Connection petition supporting Lubna Hussein here.

 

Readers Real and Ideal

(I posted this at The Best American Poetry last Friday. I'm going to be blogging there regularly about poetry. I hope you'll take a look.)

I love the Gertrude Stein quip David Comiskey posted in response to my last blog: "I write for myself and strangers." that just about covers it, doesn't it? Another reader sent in a different version: "I write for myself and strange people." That's probably just as true. For some more portraits of the reader in one's head, I queried members of WOM-PO, a listserv of mostly poets (both sexes) devoted to discussion of poetry by women. Here are some answers: Emily Dickinson, YOU, "the me which is that feathered thing alive and barnacled on/as my soul," "people who need my words," a friend in Colorado with whom the poet has exchanged a weekly poem for the past 33 (!) years, "my former next-door neighbor, Joan, who didn't go to college, but who is a terrific reader," a longstanding poetry critique group, a local poetry listserv in Sebastopol, CA. Linda Rodriguez says she writes for "a literate, reading person somewhere out there in the world, someone curious who wants to see beneath the surface of life" -- a version of Virginia Woolf's Common Reader -- but others longed to reach people, including their relatives, who didn't read poetry and who might be electrified by something they wrote. "When I find a fifteen year old girl in a small town somewhere that has read a poem and gone on to the library filled with questions," writes Sina Queyras, "Well, that's what it's about for me." If that doesn't happen, don't lose heart. As Kate Bernadette Benedict points out "My internalized reader may not even be born yet!"

Mary Oliver agrees with Benedict. "I write poems for a stranger who will be born in some distant country hundreds of years from now," she wrote in "A Poetry Handbook." Of course, Oliver is one of the most popular poets in America right this minute -- it's not like she's waiting for posterity to catch up with her. Billy Collins, the other most popular poet, has a riff on Oliver. It's a funny poem, but I can't decide if he's making fun of her. Is he mocking her somewhat vatic claim on posterity, debunking the idea of posterity as anything special, ruefully deflating the concept of universality, or even comparing Oliver's poetry to a wet dog? What do you think?

To a Stranger Born in Some Distant Country Hundreds of Years from Now

I write poems for a stranger who will be born in some distant country hundreds of years from now. - Mary Oliver

Nobody here likes a wet dog.
No one wants anything to do with a dog
that is wet from being out in the rain
or retrieving a stick from a lake.
Look how she wanders around the crowded pub tonight
going from one person to another
hoping for a pat on the head, a rub behind the ears,
something that could be given with one hand
without even wrinkling the conversation.

But everyone pushes her away,
some with a knee, others with the sole of a boot.
Even the children, who don't realize she is wet
until they go to pet her,
push her away
then wipe their hands on their clothes.
And whenever she heads toward me,
I show her my palm, and she turns aside.

O stranger of the future!
O inconceivable being!
whatever the shape of your house,
however you scoot from place to place,
no matter how strange and colorless the clothes you may wear,
I bet nobody there likes a wet dog either.
I bet everyone in your pub,
even the children, pushes her away.

-- Billy Collins

Whom do you Write your Poems for?

(This is a repost of my August 3 post at The Best American Poetry . It's a great website, come visit and look around!)

It's easy to describe the readers I have in mind when I write my column in The Nation: the 185,000 Nation subscribers, who are mostly liberals, progressives and leftists of various sorts, college-educated, over thirty, up on the news. I know quite a few of these readers, and hear from them all the time. Beyond the magic subscription circle, there's the larger community of feminists, other journalists, and writers I admire, including a few dead ones in my head.

But whom do I write my poems for? "Anyone who wants them" is one easy answer. "Myself" is another. Both are true in a way, but incomplete. Who is that "anyone" who pockets the breadcrumbs I cast upon the water? And if I write for myself, why do I try to publish my poems and care what anyone thinks about them? At least for me, communication is intrinsic to writing, so I must have some blurry idea in mind about who I'm communicating with -- or, perhaps more accurately, given the state of poetry these days, wish I was communicating with.

There's a sociological answer to the readership question. According to The Poetry Foundation's survey, "Poetry in America," the most frequent readers of poetry (or, as the study oddly calls them, "users" of poetry) are middle-aged women with post-secondary degrees, who began reading, or using, poetry when they were young. That's me all over! Sociologically, "I write for myself" and "I write for anyone who wants it" are not such different statements after all.

But what about the ideal reader? The one who really sees what you are trying to do in a poem, and if you can please that demanding but simpatico person, you feel you've gotten it right? If you're lucky, you might have a teacher like that when you're young, or a friend, or a fellow poet or two. Failing that, or in addition to that, you might have to imagine your ideal reader, as Dante for all intents and purposes imagined Beatrice, whom he'd had such a crush on when they were kids.

One popular type of imaginary ideal reader is, curiously, the non-reader. In "In My Craft or Sullen Art," Dylan Thomas claimed he wrote not for literary people or for the ages but for "the lovers,/their arms round the griefs of the ages,/who pay no praise nor wages/nor heed my craft or art." And indeed, if those lovers disentwined themselves long enough to read a poem, it was probably one by Thomas, one of the last poet-celebrities of the English-speaking world.

Yeats (right) was another one who envisioned an ideal non-reader. In l914, fed up with the ideologically overheated Dublin literary-political scene, he imagined his ideal reader as a Connemara fisherman, a "wise and simple man" whom Yeats believed belonged to an older, better, truer, more organic (in the old sense) Irish people. What saves "The Fisherman" from nationalistic sentimentality is Yeats' admission that this ideal fisherman-reader does not exist. He is a necessary fiction, a dream:

 

 

Although I can see him still,  
  The freckled man who goes   
 To a grey place on a hill     
In grey Connemara clothes 
   At dawn to cast his flies,  
  It's long since I began 
   To call up to the eyes    
 This wise and simple man.   
  All day I'd looked in the face    
What I had hoped 'twould be    
 To write for my own race   
  And the reality;   
  The living men that I hate,     
The dead man that I loved,   
  The craven man in his seat, 
   The insolent unreproved,   
 And no knave brought to book    
Who has won a drunken cheer, 
   The witty man and his joke   
 Aimed at the commonest ear,   
  The clever man who cries 
   The catch-cries of the clown,  
  The beating down of the wise   
 And great Art beaten down.   

Maybe a twelvemonth since 
   Suddenly I began,   
In scorn of this audience,  
  Imagining a man, 
   And his sun-freckled face,  
  And grey Connemara cloth,
    Climbing up to a place   
 Where stone is dark under froth,   
And the down-turn of his wrist    
When the flies drop in the stream;  
  A man who does not exist,
    A man who is but a dream; 
   And cried, 'Before I am old    
I shall have written him one  
poem maybe as cold  
  And passionate as the dawn.'

 

Poems about Poems: Why Not?

Is there something wrong with writing poems about writing poems? And if so, what? My friend Richard Howard was the first person who told me he didn't approve of that subject, but since he said it while saying nice things about a poem I had written on that very theme, I didn't take it as a blanket prohibition, just a personal preference. It turns out a lot of people share it. Jackie Sheeler, commenting on yesterday's post, compares it to ‘talking to your analyst about being in therapy." Actually, I think that's what psychoanalysis is supposed to be all about (see Daniel Menaker's hilarious novel, The Treatment, for the cleverest portrayal ever of a shrink, the impossibly vain, hostile, and infuriatingly accurate super-Freudian Dr. Morales, who thinks everything is about himself, sex, or both). But maybe that's why I didn't stay in it very long: talking about the shrink to the shrink just seems so rude. Expensive, too.

The self-referential nature of art is old news. We don't mind songs about singing and singers, or paintings about painting and painters, as any self-portrait is bound to be: here am I the painter, painting myself painting myself. There are dozens of movies about movie-making: Sunset Boulevard, Day for Night, Contempt, Adaptation, to name just a few. Why should poetry be different? Why shouldn't poets, from time to time, reflect in verse on what is, after all, their occupation and preoccupation?

Perhaps there's a moral aspect: poetry is not "the real world," where real people , ie people who don't read poetry, live. So if you want to reach real people, you have to write about something they care about-- baseball or the Byzantine Empire or having a baby, whatever, just not about poetry, because you can be sure that's the one thing they don't care about. Writing a poem about poetry only going to puzzle and bore non-poets. Worse, it's going to sound "elitist," which is a grave sin in our faux-egalitarian country, where it's okay to rejoice openly in having lots more money, houses, boats, cars, gadgets, and power than others, but not in having a big working vocabulary, a good education or a consuming interest in anything unprofitable. Perhaps writing poems about poetry comes across as a way of saying, I'm so special. Prompting the inevitable response: Who do you think you are, anyway?

Given all this, it's not surprising that when poets write about writing poetry, they often sound a little depressed. My psychiatrist-writer friend Anna Fels , whose book Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women's Changing Lives you should read right away if you haven't already, takes a clinical view: "As a shrink," she wrote in an e mail after reading yesterday's post, " I've wondered sometimes if such poems represent depressive periods in bipolars or cyclothymics since so many modern poets have been bipolar." Maybe, but maybe those poets are just responding naturally to the situation of the poet in our time, the sense of being always at the margins, of having to justify one's existence, of offering the world something the world doesn't really want.

Here's a wonderful poem by Grace Paley (right) about exactly that:

The Poet's Occasional Alternative

I was going to write a poem
I made a pie instead      it took
about the same amount of time
of course the pie was a final
draft     a poem would have had some
distance to go      days and weeks and
much crumpled paper
the pie already had a talking
tumbling audience among small
trucks and a fire engine on
the kitchen floor
everybody will like this pie
it will have apples and cranberries
dried apricots in it       many friends
will say       why in the world did you
make only one
this does not happen with poems
because of unreportable
sadness I decided to
settle this morning for a re-
sponsive eatership      I do not
want to wait a week     a year      a
generation for the right
consumer to come along

****Just out from Random House: The Mind-Body Problem: Poems by Katha Pollitt

 

Complain, Complain: Poems about Writing Poetry

Now for something completely different. This week I'm guest-blogging at The Best American Poetry. So much fun! I'll be putting up here what I wrote over there the day before. Here's Sunday's post:

Have you ever noticed how many modern poems there are in which the poet complains about the difficulty of writing poetry? I suspect this is a relatively recent addition to the long list of poets' complaints, perhaps replacing the traditional lament that the poet's girlfriend won't sleep with him. Now chances are she'll do that, at least for a while. Back in the day poets wrote scads of poems about about how cold and heartless or just mysteriously uninterested the desired woman was, but at least the poem itself was not the problem. Poets were always comparing themselves to shepherds tootling on flutes or panpipes, which sounds restful and pleasant and not very musically challenging, or to madmen raving, birds warbling, or other images of spontaneous and untutored communication. Perhaps it was easier when you had the Muse to do the heavy lifting.

I thought about this because of a dinner party I recently attended, to which each guest was asked to bring a poem to read around the table. Most of the guests were writers, although I was the only poet. I am embarrassed to say how long it took me to choose my poem -- so many of my favorites I had to disqualify as too long, too sad, too intimate, too familiar, or inviting an inaccurate autobiographical reading. I mean, nobody wants to have to hear the whole Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock before they get to eat dessert. Aha, I thought, Stevie Smith! A poet I love. She's funny, she's poignant, she has lots of short poems. Lots of short poems about Christianity (no), death (no), ridiculous people (no) and unhappy love(no!). Just when I was about to have a fit -- because did I mention that I left all this to the last moment and had persuaded myself that I was about to make a great fool of myself in front of a whole roomful of people I admired and esteemed and even, in one or two cases, was a bit afraid of and was beginning to wonder if possibly my humiliation was the whole secret point of the exercise -- I found this wonderful poem:

Mrs. Arbuthnot

Mrs. Arbuthnot was a poet
A poet of high degree,
But her talent left her;
Now she lives at home by the sea.

In the morning she washes up,
In the afternoon she sleeps,
Only in the evenings sometimes
for her lost talent she weeps,

Crying: I should write a poem,
Can I look a wave in the face
If I do not write a poem about a sea-wave,
Putting the words in place.

Mrs. Arbuthnot has died,
She has gone to heaven,
She is one with the heavenly combers now
And need not write about them.

Cry: she is a heavenly comber,
she runs with a comb of fire,
Nobody writes or wishes to
Who is one with their desire.

As it happens, another guest brought a poem on the same theme, Brenda Shaughnessy's "A Poet's Poem":

If it takes me all day,
I will get the word freshened out of this poem.
I put it in the first line, then moved it to the second,
and now it won't come out.
It's stuck. I'm so frustrated,
so I went out to my little porch all covered in snow
and watched the icicles drip, as I smoked
a cigarette.
Finally I reached up and broke a big, clear spike
off the roof with my bare hand.
And used it to write a word in the snow.
I wrote the word snow.
I can't stand myself.

If Mrs. Arbuthnot had written a poem about not writing that poem about the sea wave, it might have been this very poem.

So if nobody writes or wishes to who is one with their desire, has the poem itself become the elusive, resistant love object, the modern Phyllis or Clorinda?

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