Monday, April 15, 2024

Poets Gonna Poet


Listening to the jazz station as I drove to work and the great Allen Toussaint masterfully toodle noodle doodle through what started life as Ellington and Strayhorn's Day Dream. Next was Jon Cleary's Frenchmen Street Blues (live) and then some slip-sliding something by a quintet I forget and I was reminded of a recent online conversation about poetry.

I can say that I know a number of poets the way I can say I know a lot of writers generally now. I have a few friends of long standing who are writers, including at least one excellent poet. I am personally acquainted with a much wider circle of professional writers I've gotten to know because I am a bookseller. More recently, social media has expanded this list exponentially. I am tickled to death to say I know these people. In my experience, writers, and poets in particular are unsurprisingly interesting and amusing company -- so long as they are not talking about money, or the failure of the publishers to adequately promote their work, or their craft.

Writers writing about writing -- not about other writers, mind, but the act itself -- constitutes a punishingly narrow branch of belle lettres upon which only the most delicate sensibilities may attractively perch. E. M. Forster comes first to mind. More recently for me Zadie Smith and Marilynne Robinson. As I understand it, there have been some famous or once famous folk  who have written excellent practical guides to prose writing, like the late John Gardner or the still sweetly grinding Stephen King. Never read 'em, only sold 'em. I'm a big reader. I write a little. Writing about writing generally makes as much sense to me as dancing about dance. You want to do better? Read more. You want to earn a living? Take a class, marry a publisher, teach.

Meanwhile, unless they travel or cook, poets usually talk poetry, usually to other poets. I don't like comparing anything I admire to religion which I resolutely do not, but poets talk poetry the way white Buddhists talk about meditation: over pizza and beer, or spaghetti and wine, or on a long car ride, or at the bus stop, in groups, online, presumably to their pets. Poets talk about writing poetry the way the Council of Trent discussed transubstantiation, the way church ladies parse verses from Deuteronomy at Thursday Bible Study, like sister-wives scheduling husbandly visitation.  Poets, at least with other poets, talk a lot o' shop.

I never really appreciated this until Facebook. Before that my poet friends, knowing the prosaic limits of my mind, spared me much. They answered my simple questions, recommended poems and poets, indulged my weird taste for obscure minor Romantics, and kept the technical talk for their writing groups and their working journals. (Like songwriters -- not the same thing -- poets are great scrap-quilters: never saw a square of paper that mightn't be used for a draft. Notes hoarded like good cotton prints and bits of velvet, poets.) I admire poets because it, poetry, always has new poem somewhere underway. Novelists in my experience require corkboards and cabins and quiet. Poets need a pencil and if they are lucky, a tree. Fascinating people, poets. Now, thanks to social media, I get to watch in something like real time as a great variety of working poets talk amongst themselves. This can be quite interesting. It can also remind me just how much I do not care about assonance. 

Today's virtual poetry chinwag was a somewhat familiar lament for those halcyon days never to return when folks, common folk, non-poet folk, knew Dickinson, Whitman, and Frost. It started with a a page of poet Charles Simic's 1989 book of poems and prose poems, The World Doesn't End. (He's wonderful, by the way. Read him.) Simic was talking -- natch --to poets and addresses them with typical sweetness and humor as "... you whose fame will never reach beyond your closest family," etc. Ouch. He of course includes himself in this, despite having the Frost Medal, the Wallace Stevens Award, and so on. (Yeah, I hadn't heard of those either.) What followed the page of Simic was an interesting Facebook thread, a kind of resigned, collective sigh for the lost kingdom of the Celebrated Poet, as opposed to the "celebrity poet" (see Jewel, Amber Tamblyn, dear dead Leonard Nimoy,) or the bestselling poets (very much lower case) like the late Mary Oliver and Maya Angelou, or the still workin' Billy Collins, on whom some snobbish poets and academic critics still like to shit. Could there be such a thing as the Celebrated Poet now?

To be honest, I don't much remember all the particulars on that thread which I can't find now. I'd hazard it was a lot like so much of my own online howling and gnashing of choppers over this dark, supposedly post-print age. "We do not DESERVE nice things!" To be fair though, I'm pretty sure the poets were all considerably more thoughtful and their arguments more nuanced than that. It's kinda their jam, nuance (and misusing verbs in ways that are meant to be either pretty or provocative or both. I recently put a book right back on the shelf, a very attractive new hardcover, a novel in verse, after reading the first stanza wherein the narrator described "drinking" her lady fair's hair. Ick, dear. Just, ick.)

This morning, for whatever reason I rather impertinently decided to offer a thought -- a thing I've found it far better to never do generally when the professionals are talking well over my head as they so often do.  Maybe today, heading to a short shift at the bookstore, I just felt an urge to kick shins. Cheeky bugger. Ain't I cute?! To my certain knowledge, not a soul noticed. At least no one responded. Evidently my attempt at provocation was less a burn and more of a fart in church. Oh well. (Still, I'm old now and can't really afford a fight, even just a virtual, verbal altercation, as I am both brittle and apt to cry. Best kind of trouble-making then, when the trouble you make goes right by. No consequences. Win.)

What I wrote was this: 

"You can't write music nobody can dance to and then wonder why nobody listens to jazz anymore."

And we are back to my morning commute! I actually love jazz. (Yeah, I'm that guy.) I'm not perhaps the most adventurous soul -- I'd still rather listen to Coleman Hawkins than John Coltrane -- but I've been listening long enough to know that I can enjoy most of the mix if I try. And I am willing to try nearly anything for the length of the average song on the radio. I have my prejudices and irrational antipathies, like any old man. For example, Hazel Scott and Ray Charles were the only people to ever play the Hammond Organ who didn't make me want to go roller skating or change the channel. Also? Betty Carter may have been a genius but she was a trial to listen to sometimes. On the other hand, Samara Joy is perfectly named. Opinions. Tastes. Mine.

In other words, straight forward fogey, me -- if you missed it. Doesn't mean I am immune to experimentation and or the modern. Mark Rothko made me cry once, in a good way. I've watched Nixon in China straight through twice. (Aren't I brave?!) I am willing to allow for a level of confusion and or discomfort in poetry I would rarely tolerate in prose not written by Samuel Beckett. Again, there are limits:

I do not see the purpose of John Ashbery. Pound's Cantos are junk drawers of disconnected cables and travel brochures. Coleridge was high way too often for his or our own good. Ginsberg was a noisy prick. Jorie Graham often reads like a translation I never asked for of a better poet I'll never read in the original. Hart Crane loved a salad. William Carlos Williams often writes like a general practitioner and Wallace Stevens is always an insurance salesman in Hartford, CT. And so on.

On safer ground: this anonymous dude, Atticus? Rupi Kaur? That's just embarrassing.

So is my ignored contribution to the poet's conversation true? Obviously I think so. The jazz I listen to is much like most of the contemporary poetry I read; I don't expect my nephew to like it or give a good goddamn. Shakti's reunion album in 2023 was a banger! I first read the Dickman brothers' poetry because they were saucy little twinks. Now they are very middle-aged and I still enjoy them, though it doesn't feel quite so nimble now. I cannot imagine that anybody involved in any of this is aiming to perform at the next Presidential Inauguration, or launch a stadium tour, or gain a big TikTok following. 

The very idea of the Celebrated Poet is probably silly isn't it? Am I wrong? Dickinson lived in a locked closet and sent notes down to the dining room. In his day, Whitman was arguably at least as famous for picking up cabdrivers as for being the great gray poet. How old was Walt before he was recognized on the street, despite putting his own picture right there in the book? I could argue that Frost wasn't as famous as Carl Sandburg and Sandburg was more famous for rutabagas and Lincoln than for his serious poetry. Unless one was Homer (and Homer probably wasn't Homer according to a lot of folks,) being a famous poet was nearly always pretty small beer. Even Byron was read by how many people? And he was pretty. Pretty helped. And rhyme. Rhyme helped. When Ovid was supposedly famous, don't know if you'll know this but they didn't have movie stars, or television, or YouTube or, believe it or not, even phones! (!)  

Who was the last poet to earn a living just writing poetry who wasn't just Rod McKuen and even he had to write really shitty pop songs too just to make the rent on his rent boys and beach house.

And jazz after Swing died? Who was the last great Jazz star? Miles Davis? We all know what happened there, don't we? He bought an amp and then everything just went on without making any kind of sense ever again and it was never quite the same, was it?

What exactly is wrong with not being Taylor Swift? I mean, I like Taylor Swift and wish her nothing but more billions, honestly. Diana Krall wasn't booking those stadiums anyway, honey. Do you think Diana cries every night in Elvis Costello's arms? I do not. 

Poetry seems to be one of the last places where really smart people can write really smart things and then be read by really smart people without worrying too terribly much that all the really not smart people, the actively, proudly, violently stupid people will try to burn them for it. That's a positive isn't it? 

As someone who remains, as they say, slightly butt-hurt that even fewer than I anticipated could be made to give a tinker's dam about my last self-published book of Christmas essays and very short stories, I completely understand when any artist is disappointed by the extent of their audience. I get it. As a bookseller, I've spent a good part of my working life trying to get people to read great, even good, even just better books. Uphill struggle, son. 

Nothing wrong with being better than most people will ever know. Wish we could make people not eat American cheese product instead of cheddar, but the world is brimming with tastelessness and fools. 

Also hard stuff is too hard sometimes and even smart people may not want to try to keep time to your nonsense nor read your "found" poem, nor buy your collage, nor watch your short film about gravel (nor buy another copy of Plates: A Christmas Concatenation, evidently, despite me not being nothing but charming in my simplicity.)

I read poetry because it isn't prose. I don't expect most of the people I will ever meet to know the difference. ("Where's your nonfiction section?") I don't say I'm fine with that, but without even looking too hard there are worse things about most of us, aren't there? Every poet I've ever met had a day job. James Merrill's dad was Merrill Lynch, which kept Jimmy in teacups and cocktails all his too short life. When they published those big, uniform hardcovers of all of James Merrill a few years ago, I sold two sets to people other than me and thought myself something of a retail all star. Don't know if I could do that now, or that they would be published. 

Sometimes the world is the size of this chair, ain't it? Not always an altogether bad thing, mostly. (A poet would say that better, at least the ones not busy drinking their girlfriend's hair.)


  1. Do you still have a set of the James Merrill? My old paperbacks are quite dog-eared and I recently retired. So I sense a possible replacement effort…
    Bob Tollefson
    Email is.