“This is a book that is sensible and smart. It throbs with life and style and the hard iron of living–the words beaten into tensile strength, all rust scoured into thought.”
Winner of the 2008 Foreword INDIES Gold for Essays
Click the link to purchase this book through the publisher: Purchase By Heart: Reflections of a Rust Belt Bard
Excerpts from the book
Books of Sand
There are whole books praised and never read.
Borges, says Frank, went one further. He praised books that were never written. Phantom books. Make-believe authors. And this is not off point, since Frank himself, letter of acceptance from Miami University Press in hand, threatens to decline publication of his manuscript, thus joining the ranks of the make-believe, the phantom, the unpublished.
“It’s unheard of,” I say.
“Yes,” says Frank, “I suppose I will be.”
Frank Polite is not exactly my father, but if you’re a poet in Youngstown—and what else can you be with unemployment what it is?—you’re pretty much Frank’s bastard. He has a real son, Khepri, by his first wife, who once played the sexy Zenite mining alien in a Star Trek episode. No, now that I think of it, Khepri belongs to Frank’s second wife, the jazz singer. I met her at a local speakeasy; Frank introduced her as “the mother of my son.” That’s Frank. Only he can get away with tweaking ex-wives.
“They just want to mother me,” he shrugs.
Frank saw Borges read once, and during the question period felt the need to be recognized as a fellow human by this great man and so stood up and caught the attention of the sighted translator and asked Borges what he thought of Yeats.
“Stupid!” Frank spluttered, telling the story, to ask Borges, this Homeric presence, what he thinks of another writer.
Then Frank’s face lit up as if he himself were blind, delivering Borges’ reply, “Thank you for linking my name with a name of such greatness.”
Some days in this ex-steel town, it’s hard to link our names to anything great. Hard to imagine Borges or Yeats or Captain James T.Kirk are members of our species, which, I suppose, makes Hyde a trope for Youngstown, as a place and also as a cankerous worry inside each of us, no matter where we live.
Hyde: A Novella Noir is Frank’s book-length manuscript of pantheras, “an obscure poetic form/ developed in Kang-/al-Sivas region of Turkey,” as one panthera reveals. “A panthera lurks & leaps/ jolting its prey into/ a dazed clarity.” This is a region Frank knows well—both the daze and clarity—having once fled a job in the Human Resources Department of Mahoning County to live in Turkey. Turkey has become for Youngstown poets a kind of sister city (our imagination is expansive if fuzzy) whence at least one pilgrim, George Peffer, has reported. George needed a vacation from “the hard work of living.” His review: “We all choke on misapprehended hope.”
Misapprehended pilgrimages are Hyde’smetier. Beginning in ancient Egypt; migrating to Las Vegas; on to Malabar, a hideaway in Ohio where Bogie and Bacall were wed; and finally to the ‘Holy City of Trebizond,’ Hyde “lurks & leaps” through language, an elusive principle of calm in a kaleidoscope of exotic trash.
In this town we take our trash straight up. The other day I found a note stenciled on a cardboard sign in the window of a derelict building. “When you love a place, really and most hopelessly love it, I think you love it for its signs of disaster, just as you come to realize how you love the particular irregularities and even scars on some person’s face.” The words are attributed to “James Wright, Ohio poet.”
Ohio poet indeed! James A. Wright was one of the greatest poet in English since Yeats. There’s something beatific about the appearance of these lines so near their source. Having made the journey from Martins Ferry to Florence to international fame, they return, not as lines from a famous poet, but as the words of a citizen haunting a place badly in need of naming. It’s this kind of harebrained compassion for personal disaster that impels Hyde on his pinball spin across centuries and continents, all the way to the oblivion of an unpublished manuscript.
The reason Frank decided to withdraw Hyde from Miami University Press is that they offered him “a contract from hell.”
“How’s that?” I asked.
“They take copyright, the movie rights, they even skim a percentage off any readings I give.”
“Why didn’t they offer you a standard contract?”
“Well, it is the standard contract, but Hydeisn’t a standard book.”
One thing’s certain: Frank’s not the standard author. There’s something loopy about worrying about movie rights for a manuscript of poems, but as Frank points out, why not? “I’m sixty-two years old. I don’t belong to any university. I don’t care if I get brownie-points from AWP. There’s no real money involved. I’ll just publish it myself if I have to.”
Loopy, to me, louring in a provincial outpost of academia where news of publication seldom reaches. Yet sensible, too. It’s an exercise of one of the few privileges that the ghetto economy of poetry allows. Frank offers a sane response to the current state of affairs: thousands of poets struggling to sell books no one reads.
Nor is this Frank’s first brush with oblivion. There’s the story of Miro Papadakis, the poet from the island of Skyros. Frank received a letter from this rural bard—through what agency God knows—inviting him to meet the great man and to “adventure” with him, translate his works. Frank coaxed a local politico to muscle a grant from the Ohio Arts Council and made his way to Greece. His lack of Greek was no bother; it wasn’t long before he found a bilingual collaborator with flowing dark hair and island eyes.
The adventure started beautifully. Papadakis was a fireplug in a caftan. Wildly hospitable, he caroused with Frank from noon till midnight, sloshing ouzo in his hut on the side of a rough mountain. He composed his poems orally, and in fact had never written them down at all, yet he employed complex stanza forms that seemed to recall the dactylic hexameter Homer had heard in the sea-foam. His images, his intensity, and his simplicity were rooted deep in Greek soil; yet the demotic Greek was vivid as jazz. Few knew this iconoclastic bard, and fewer, Frank believed, appreciated his genius. Frank hoped to produce a volume of these translations.
Then one morning Papadakis disappeared. Frank climbed the mountain path to his hut to find the poet vanished. No note, no good-bye. Lost at sea? Apotheosized? Fled a jealous husband? No one knew. Frank was left with a handful of scrawled poems, the dregs of his Ohio Council grant, and a nubile translator. “Four Translations from Miro Papadakis” were all Frank could save. They appear in his book, Letters of Transit.
Who can trust a fugitive, or translator, or poet in transit, or even their own judgment these days? Would I be writing this, or you reading it, if Hyde’s worth weren’t confirmed by some poltergeist lurking in the basement of the English Department of the University of Miami? Even Lauren Bacall declined to read it. Frank wrote her, explaining that his forthcoming book of poems was set in Malabar, the Ohio resort where she’d married Bogie. Would the great lady accede to read the manuscript? Perhaps write a short blurb? A postcard with SASE was enclosed for her convenience. On it, Frank typed ‘Yes/No,’ with two boxes to check. Frank read the letter aloud at the monthly open reading at the Cedars bar, a country western beatnik festival of bathos. He held the card up for all to see, the card touched by Lauren Bacall, the card with the penciled checkmark under ‘No.’
“She could have at least written it out,” says Frank. “You know how to say ‘No,’ don’t you baby? Just put your lips together and blow.”
Though I pose as a son, I have reached the age when manuscripts have more adventures than I do. In a place like this, the real rift isn’t between Fathers and Sons or between Town and Gown; it’s between Word and Flesh. Our manuscripts live the lives we’ve missed. Every poet has a tale. Like urban legends they follow the same plot, having to do with close calls and dying editors. Our manuscripts flit around the world, seeking danger, avoiding certain death by strokes implausible as a James Bond escapade. There’s the writer who left Youngstown for Boston and lounged so long in Cambridge cafes that when his manuscript was accepted by Knopf he turned them down because word on the cobbled streets was that it’s a bad idea to debut with short stories. There’s the poet who was so afraid for his manuscript’s safety he would mail it ahead when he planned a plane trip in case the plane went down. There’s the poet who was promised publication right before the editor was indicted, and the poet whose reputation was ruined because another poet of the same name circulated dreck. The stories go back to Nora saving Stephen Hero from the fire and beyond, harkening to the old testament mystery of the lost ark.
It’s Flesh v. Word all the way down. Word claims that all you have to do is live until you’re thirty and after that you can hand over the adventuring to the manuscript. “As for living,” says the French aesthete, Villiers-d’Isle, “our servants will do that for us.” Or in our case, our students. You can burrow into the academy, get a PhD (with an oxymoronic “creative dissertation”) and live in the cloud-cuckoo land miles above the Zenite mines where Frank’s first wife panted her fifteen minutes. We too have our poets—eighteen feet of us: William Greenway, Steve Reese, and me. PhD’s and manuscripts in hand, we landed in Youngtown from far parts—first William, then Steve, and finally me, careful not to swamp the boat. William landed two books with Breitenbush and when they folded managed the next four from U. of Akron. Steve’s manuscript was taken by Cleveland State, and my second, after collecting more rejections than a smuggler’s passport, won a small prize from Ashland Poetry Press. Ah, the stories. The strokes of luck. The almosts. The could-a-beens. Of course we submit (perfect word) to all the unread journals, from Poetry to Twenty Million Flies Can’t Be Wrong; though there’s not a penny in it, and some days we doubt if the even the featured authors themselves read any but their own poems. We’re inveterate contest entrants: our entry fee tab tops our bar bills. But we can afford it. Youngstown’s cheap, and short of mayor, we’ve got the cushiest jobs in town.
Fed up with stamp-licking, Flesh ripostes that to be a poet you have to leap out of the ivory tower chuteless. You have to travel to Turkey and work years in the Human Resources Department of the third cornice of hell and marry passionately and often and lose sleep and bleed pantheras. You have to, in a word, suffer.
In the suffering one’s identity is purged. “The intellect of man is forced to choose,” says Yeats, “Perfection of the life, or of the work/ And if it take the second must refuse/ A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.” But Yeats also applied for the job of Professor at Trinity College just in case. He didn’t get it.
Raging in the dark, few attain Yeats’s stature. Most just get the suffering. But the belief that personal experience lends a necessary credibility to poems that we would not expect from fiction is an attractive idea, especially when the suffering looks compulsory anyway. Youngstown may be the official capital of poetic suffering in the U.S.
There’s a need here to shoot yourself in the foot as if success might spoil your soul. Hyde’s gift for duende aside, Youngstown poets regularly maul whatever poor chances for the poor version of success poetry holds out. Sometimes it seems like a stampede toward invisibility, a collective yearning to rhyme the ghost smoke of dead steel mills. Or perhaps it’s just a desire to return to a home whose name has been lost.
For instance there’s Ed Curley. A professional house-sitter, Ed describes a safe orbit around the university, enrolling in, but seldom finishing, courses in a basketload of subjects. Once at a reception for a visiting poet, he spent the best part of the evening in my bathroom, and after he stumbled out I found the sink plugged with Curley flume. This, I suppose, in application to house-sit. And why not. Come sabbatical or June, the faculty is so desperate for any sort of scarecrow to stand sentinel that Curley’s services are always in demand.
As far as I knew, Curley’s poetic career consisted of his monthly performances at the Cedar’s open readings, where he operates as “Leo Rude.” The pseudonym not only pays tribute to Frank but describes the poems Curley reads—fragments from Catullus, Verlaine, and Bukowski—along with lintballs pulled from his own pockets. So I got quite a shock returning home after a stint of his house-sitting to find that Curley harbored poetic ambitions in his own name.
A few days after he’d moved on to his next target, my phone rang and a woman’s voice—cultured, New England—asked for Mr.Curley. I explained that the Curley no longer lived here and left no forwarding number.
“Well, if you do find him, could you ask him to call Maxine Kumin,” and she gave me a number that whirred and jumbled in my head.
“The Maxine Kumin?” I blurted out.
“How kind,” replied the voice.
“If you don’t mind my asking, Ms. Kumin, how do you know Ed Curley?”
“We’ve never met,” the famous poet responded, “but he sent me a letter with a wonderful poem about Alexander Pope. He left this number. I was just calling to thank him. I hope I’m not disturbing.”
Disturbing? My world was turned inside out. I conjured the bulbous head of my housesitter, his Camel slouch. Hard to imagine he’d written anything that wouldn’t fit on a cocktail napkin. But curiosity gnawed, and I drove down to the Cedars and nabbed Curley—who probably thought I meant to pester him about a cracked dish—and I asked for and received a copy of the poem Maxine Kumin praised.
It’s a poem of several hundred lines in two sections. The first section, composed of heroic couplets, pastiches the elegant vitriol of Pope. Addressed to the poet who “considered with a cast eye what dissolves, who assessed bitterness and scale,” the poem echoes Pope’s contempt for poetasters, quoting a line from “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” about a versifier so addicted to rhyming that “lock’d from ink and paper, [he] scrawls/ with desp’rate charcoal round his darken’d walls.” The second section veers into another kind of prosody—long syllabic lines laced with internal assonance, describing a contemporary of Pope who died virtually unknown in debtor’s prison in Ireland. He went by the formidable name of Cathal Buidhe MacGiolla Ghuna, and if he’s known at all today, it’s for Thomas MacDonough’s translation of his poem “An Bannan Bui,” “The Yellow Bittern.” Curley balances these two worlds—one enlightened; one verging on oblivion, suggesting that the enlightenment fed on the neighboring darkness—that in fact light leeched its power from truths incubated in darkness. The horror of the poem comes from the revelation that Cathal Bui, according to legend, scrawled his last poems on his prison walls in charcoal.
Maybe ours is such: a necessary darkness. Maybe we in Youngstown are figures in a dusk without which the belief in a poetry which emerges from a select cadre into the light of publication would disintegrate. Perhaps our role is to remind that every literature course ought to assign at least one book that is not a book. Every bookstore ought to feature empty shelves.
And in case this essay in its published form reflects too much glare, I have taken the precaution of including two poets who do not exist. One was Frank’s invention. There is no Miro Papadakis. In a modern day version of MacPherson’s scam, Frank invented the Greek poet for the sake of the state grant. The great adventure was a yarn woven with Frank’s customary flourishes deep into a Cedar’s endless evening. The four Papadakis poems that appear in Letters of Transit were his own compositions, rendered afterward into Greek by his beautiful translator.
The poet Curley, with a bow to Borges, I have made up myself.
Teaching Tu Fu on the Night Shift
It’s one of those pre-fab classrooms in the School of Business building that makes you feel like hooking on a straight-jacket: pastel walls, pastel desks, pastel carpet, no windows. Outside, the evening’s warm—maybe the last autumn evening before the rains and snow blacken this ghost-steel town for the next six months. But my students haven’t seen much of the day, or the evening, or probably the Fall for that matter: they’ve driven straight in from suburban jobs, unwrapping a burger as they cruise for parking, or plugging quarters into the basement snack machines before filing into the elevator up to night class.
My father went to school like this—commuting from the 111th precinct in Queens to some ward room in Brooklyn where CUNY set up extension classes for cops, putting himself through night school while he put me through a country club college as far away from Flushing as the moon. What drove him, I was sure, was the need to see to it that the finger wagging over his TV tray in our squabbles about drugs, Napoleon, Vietnam, or Papal infallibility, still belonged to the upper hand.
Something must drive each student here to set aside two nights a week forEnglish 638: Introduction to Modern World Literature: a better job, a child’s respect, some undefined hunger. They’re here to read, but more importantly to succeed—or at least to keep a step ahead of failure—whatever it means and whatever it takes. And me? I’m far from home—here for the job and lucky to have it—so I tell myself.
But tonight, I saunter into English 638 feeling cocky—not just because I’ve strolled across this downtown campus on a balmy night savoring the year’s last warmth, but because I’m bringing to class the poems of Tu Fu, that wayward bureaucrat from the T’ang dynasty, whose voice speaks directly to all of us in the Business building of a provincial university, where we obey “the summons to Court” that Tu Fu ignored, while “[his] colleagues paid respects to the Ministers of State.” Yes, we’re supposed to be studying Modern Literature, but tonight I’m feeling wayward, and I think this ancient Chinese poet assuages some longing our presence here attests to, a longing to understand how we have become cogs in a machine we can’t smash. I think that Tu Fu, in Carolyn Kizer’s elegant translations, bears witness that others in distant times and places have faced the same dilemmas.
Abandon me, all of you. This world does not suit;
Not a court regular, unfitted for routine….
Well, well, I am demoted, and my dreams also.
I may no longer look forward to Paradise.
In the poems that Kizer translates in Carrying Over, Tu Fu takes the measure of middle-class life and reveals the shame and anxiety inflicted on workers and bureaucrats. The fact that Tu Fu’s ninth century China is so familiar lend a whole new meaning to the word “modern.”
Swarms of flies arrive. I’m roped into my clothes.
In another moment I’ll scream down the office
As the paper mountains rise higher on my desk.
But Tu Fu does more than scream out of office windows. These poems express angst, yet they are more remarkable for the balance they achieve between the quotidian world and the world of nature and spirit.
Leaving the audience by the quiet corridors, Stately and beautiful, we pass through the Palace gates, Turning in different directions: you go to the West With the Ministers of State. I, otherwise On my side, the willow-twigs are fragile, greening. You are struck by scarlet flowers over there. Our separate ways! You write so well, so kindly, To caution, in vain, a garrulous old man.
I love the tact of this poem: the way “stately and beautiful” is placed ambiguously between Palace corridors and the pair of chastened courtiers. I love the way the audience itself—Tu Fu’s latest failure in sycophancy—is passed over without comment in favor of compliments for the willow twigs and scarlet flowers, and for the admirable writing of the vain caution. Finally, I love the way Kizer winks at Tu Fu’s public persona, that of “a garrulous old man,” and reveals at the same time, by enclosing “in vain” in commas, the dignity of his departure.
Harnessed in the working world, still Tu Fu revels in his own conflicted nature. “Each day when Court is over, I skip to the pawnshop,/ My nice Spring wardrobe underneath my arm./ Bit by bit, I am drinking up my clothes!” No romantic, Tu Fu weighs the dangers of bucking the system: “I’ll never see seventy now,” he sighs; “Life is one, long, fragmented, murky episode.” While he gestures grandiloquently, “Sport with the women, open the lavish hampers,/ Guzzle the wine, gleaming and wet as rivers,” he is as cagey as any salesman, winking from behind his ecstatic mask, “High-sounding, isn’t it? Come quickly then,/ To my place, for now it just so happens/ I’ve saved enough small change to buy a gallon.” I just know my students will love this.
But after twenty minutes of coaxing discussion, after reciting some choice poems, after spiraling into a peroration on suburbia, death, alienation, pleasure, and just about everything short of Napoleon, I’m facing raw silence. Not even Tommy Makem’s tease to a tough audience, “Why don’t we all join hands and contact the living,” gets a response. Well, it’s late; the students have been working for ten to twelve hours; their dinners have come from machines, and their families are at home without them. Still, I can’t hide my disappointment.
Until tonight, we’ve been reading modern prose: Conrad and Lagerkvist, Anne Frank and Rosemary Mahoney. And up to now we’ve responded together: tracking Marlow through Conrad’s jungly adjectives, leafing through Bullfinch to follow the allegory of The Sibyl, suffering with Frank, and sizing up Mahoney’s China with a street-smart savvy. But tonight, I see the faces before me harden into masks I recognize: they look like me listening to my father—or not listening—just waiting for a pause so I could unleash the silence I whetted in my mind as he droned on.
Perhaps it’s because Tu Fu is so relevant that they’re uncomfortable; perhaps his irreverence stirs resentment in students still struggling to attain goals that Tu Fu scorns. He offers no “advancements,” no “raises,” no “hopes for the future.” It’s tempting to consider him a drunken loser, and to place as much distance between his failure and our own hopes as a millennium and an ocean will allow.
But that’s not it either. The class doesn’t attack anything Tu Fu says: the discussion never gets that far. There’s a lethargy tonight, edged with irritation. Though Tu Fu is as “gross and unrepentant” as ever, we hammer at his poems as if they were algebra problems.
“What does the willow stand for?” one student asks.
We trundle down the path laid out in high school and followed now by habit: Willow equals spring, spring equals renewal, therefore willow equals renewal.
Finally, one student, wearing a tie and white shirt under his high school letter jacket, owns up.
“I don’t like this kind of poetry,” he says.
The class perks up.
“What kind do you mean?” I ask.
“Oh, I don’t know—you know.”
“Well, what do you like?”
“I like other stuff. Not old stuff. Stuff I can understand.”
“You like contemporary poetry?”
Feeling picked on, he blurts out, “I like greeting cards.”
Now everyone is alert. Some are amused, some almost offended; but the whole class seems intensely interested in what will happen next. It is as if a gauntlet has been thrown down. It is as if I stood up in front of the T.V. set and told my father his beliefs meant nothing to me. I realize that far from resenting a poet for thumbing his nose at the boss, my students seethe against authority as much as Tu Fu did. All the mindless memo writing, all the orders followed, all the meaningless hack work: they detest it, and they retort with Tu Fu, “Could you learn to seed a furrow, and be free?”
But somehow, in this classroom, the tables have turned. Tu Fu doesn’t speak for them; they and I are no longer critiquing a world together as we were when we read Conrad and Mahoney. Now, for the first time, I am the representative of yet another authority: the authority of poetry—elitist, elusive, dangerous. While to me, reading Tu Fu seems liberating, to them it is another case of someone else holding the keys; and the gaudier my praise, the more they feel locked out. Now I see why this feels just like those quarrels with my father: the marshalling into position, the private silences. In praising Tu Fu, am I inviting them to enter his world? Or am I just taunting them with a glimpse of a place they have worked to build but will not be permitted to enter?
Yet their yearning to break free is fierce. The greeting card the student received was called “Thanks.” It was an acrostic, with interlocking rhymes, in a ballad meter.
There’s a rare and special quality
in the way some people live—
However busy they may be,
they still have time to give.
Anything you ask or need,
they’ll do their very best,
No matter what the task is
or how simple the request.
Kindness just comes naturally
to this rare and selfless few,
Special, giving people–
people just like you!
Listen to that: as rhetorically formal as its mauve calligraphy, and compared to Tu Fu, as certain as a commandment.
“What did you like about it?” I asked.
“It’s personal,” the student replied. “It came from a friend. It may not mean much to anyone else, but it’s special to me.”
What a beautiful way to read! The words’ public meaning do not matter. On the Hallmark rack, this card is just another piece of merchandise. But when selected and mailed, the verses are infused with a private meaning; they are read in a completely new context in which my student’s identity is acknowledged, even necessary. While the card means nothing to others, to the receiver it provides an occasion to say, with Tu Fu, “I exult in selfhood, assent to my own spirit.” As such, it challenges those who would try to shape personal taste without realizing that before poetry teaches or delights, we must first assent to self. We must first account for the fact of our own spirit.
This mercurial spirit is so strong that even Tu Fu, read in the context of university classes, is drained of the playfulness that makes his work so poignant. However simplistic the emotion of the greeting card, however much we know that it’s created by people suffering the same disillusionment as we are—and soothing that disillusionment with a steady paycheck—read now it is plaintive, its very existence in the classroom a reproach to a system that records poems read, then doles out grades like promissory notes for a future with a happy face. Yes, there are days when, like my student and Tu Fu, I feel like saying, “Let them mark me absent.” Studying in this pastel classroom with a group assigned here by computer saps Tu Fu of a quality that Yeats called “gaiety”—a joy that transfigures dread. Incredibly, Tu Fu becomes the cipher his poetry mocks.
At what point do we lose this gaiety? As children we know all about subversion. We mimic, we mock, we utter sounds fully confident of their personal meaning. What is the first poem most of us learn if not “NYAH, nyah nyah NYAH nyah?” And despite the fact that children’s poetry has become an industry that churns out “age-appropriate” rhymes, children are not at all intimidated by the need to master meaning. They respond to poems regardless of reputation, and they often delight in poems adults fear. Recently, visiting a friend who reads poetry for pleasure, I listened as he and his seven-year-old daughter recited together,
My fiftieth year had come and gone.
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book, an empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.
What could such a poem mean to a seven year-old? Wrong question. Whatever thrill or comfort incanting its strange syllables affords, it will continue to change as her mind unfolds, and perhaps half a century from now it will recrystallize to yield yet another gladdening. Remembering my friend’s daughter’s sing-song recitation, I hear an echo of the poems, ballads, and jokes with which my father regaled me before we retreated into rival camps—everything from saccharine ditties to limericks I loved for their forbidden pleasure to Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” I absorbed them as naturally as another language whose meaning deepened as I grew. Even now I measure my growth by the light these and later poems shed; some of course have dimmed; others continue to brighten. Needless to say, my student’s greeting card doggerel won’t change; “Thanks” won’t continue to tickle his synapses once the pleasure of receiving it subsides; but maybe—just maybe—the satisfaction of revealing his personal longing in a poem he has claimed will give him a taste of the freedom poetic language offers. Maybe he will feel that poems he hasn’t mastered might still belong to him as Yeats’s “Vacillation” will always belong to my friend’s daughter.
Talking about teaching creative writing, William Stafford says, “A writer is one who decides.” So is a reader. At the point we allow others to decide for us what is good we lose a vital sense of language as transformative. And when we apply to poetry the kind of discrimination that academia encourages, we jeopardize the very source of that transformation. I’m reminded of the “Peanuts” cartoon in which Charlie Brown wonders, “How do you know which poems to like,” and Lucy replies, “Don’t worry, somebody tells you.” Greeting card, bad; we say. Tu Fu, good.
Perhaps not all of us lose the personal connection with the poetry we read. Perhaps those on top of the poetry food chain are able to maintain that necessary sense that their feelings matter. Yet the ability to appreciate a poem without some authority to tell us that the poem is “good” is very rare. Most of us read with a censorious eye looking over our shoulder, checking to see that we judge wisely. But as Robert Hass observes, “Rhythm is at least partly a psychological matter.” When we change our minds, we change also the nature of the sounds we respond to, and poems begin to move us not merely because they are mailed to our address, but because our sense of the personal is broadened to include the dead and the living.
Poetry will be out of place in universities as long as it is treated as a body of knowledge to be tested, as long as it is used to discriminate among us rather than affirm some strand of being that we share, as long as we ignore what the great Irish hero Finn MacCumhal calls the finest poetry in the world: “the music of what happens.” It’s a tune Tu Fu played—can you hear it?—though he’s too slippery for any syllabus.
Well, the next meeting was quite different. I was abashed; they were contrite. We made it through the rest of Carrying Over—the poems of Rachel Korn, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Edouard Maunick, and Shu Ting—modern poets whose work was the reason I assigned this text. I left without much idea if these poems touched anyone’s life. But they touched mine. After class a student who enrolled because I had taught her daughter the previous term showed me her favorite poem, called “I Am There.” Written by a man named James Dillard Freeman, it was carried to the moon by the astronauts, and there it remains—a raft of paper floating in space.
Reading the poem—which she had found on e-mail—I think of Su Tung Po, Tu Fu’s poetic son, who looked into his wine cup, “full of the moon, drowned in the river.” I think how alone each of us is, how impossible to reach across this vast impersonal space, and I realize now that my father didn’t finish night school to compete with me, but to feed a hunger I could never fathom. He died earlier this Fall, and seeing the faces of my students struggling with Tu Fu, I feel a hunger I can never satisfy: to join hands in the undertow of time and the unconscious—Tu Fu, my father, myself, my students—though they are not my children; not at all.