Tuesday, May 01, 2012

How to Show Anybody Anything (or Good-Bye, Poetry Month)

The other day a friend of mine went to a dinner party, where the conversation passed from music to film to work to art. Eventually it turned to my friend, who is a poet, and he was asked what it is he likes to do. He told them he goes to readings and he writes. 
        "Oh," says person-to-the-left, who's known him for ten years. "Really? I love poetry!"
        "Me too," says person-to-the-right. 
         And then the conversation died.

I imagine most Thirsty readers are close enough to the biz so that, should they want it, a decent tete-a-tete about poetry isn't impossible to find. Still I think most of us also are familiar with moments like this, where we're battered head-to-brick-wall by the feeling that poetry is the awkward art--neglected, feared, inaccessible, isolated, hyperspecialized, misunderstood. Conversations like the above are the raison d'etre of National Poetry Month. Mightn't such people, if encouraged, come to love poesy the way we do? Certainly that's the hope. And I think many of us have over the years, as teachers and critics, developed strategies to help edge our dinner companions past polite incomprehension and into a more genuine relationship with the art.   

It's hard to say whether the NPM campaigns or the patient table conversations will ever have much impact, globally. Poetry may always need its apologias and defenses. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try, of course, but as I was talking about this with Norm Sibum yesterday he said that writing the best poetry that one can is the only way of showing anybody anything--and that, it seems, is both the blessing and the curse of it all. Such specialists we were meant to beThere may be no amount of prose, no conversation, no press banner or April-themed publicity project, that can bring a reader to the point of specialized commitment, where he's willing to learn his iambs or his Propertius, his Larkin or his A.M. Klein or whoever the day demands. It's a lot to ask without love. But when the love does strike--for me it was Wordsworth, but it could be anyone, anywhere--there's not much better than the joy of being a real amateur. (What's that, Norm? There are lovers who never learn?) My suspicion is that if Poetry Month or Polite Conversation puts one person in poetry-Cupid's path--if just one person gets struck, enamoured, made absurd--then we can all make do. A single instance. Somehow.

This April we began our Poetry Month posts with a Salvo from Norm Sibum's The Pangborn Defence, and it seems fitting, looking backward and forward at once, that we end with a couple new pieces from Sub Divo (forthcoming this fall). Both are unpublished. I won't say much else by way of introduction: for those of you who know Norm's work you'll know he's been working with Propertius for a long time. Happy May, everybody. I'm going to ring in the month with Corinna and a glass of wine. G'night.

Renderings from Propertius

as delivered to Gaston Côté


Odds are, Gaston, they’ll say
We died for nothing and lived for less.
We might as well have pinched her suburban arse,—
We might as well have run for mayor or else.
So, what with that black cloud roiling above,
What with those sidewalk leaves whipped about,
The passing sky of crows and our ephemeral clout,
Our little accomplishments so many vanities
That, deep down, we hope no one really notices, we’re sunk
In time’s passage, that troubled promenade
                      on the deck of a wave-tossed ship.
Such specialists we were meant to be, what wunderkind,
And how we were going to change the world, and we did,
And did we ever, and now it’s damn near hopeless,
Too much body at the expense of spirit.
Then again, a look in her eye, a smile within her, and
It was always love: she a flower clinging to her stone desert,
Commonplace of metro, bus or elevator.
And when philosophy is put to pleasure, religion is next,
                               and how you hate all that plumage—
So then pour, just pour, and I’ll overlook for now
That, though you’ll try, though you’ll make a manly effort,
           you’re the prose that can’t keep at bay
           a world that wants poetry to fade away. 


“From where does the poetry come?” you ask.
“Is there in your mind a machine that churns
Out creation?”And I put it to you, “No, but listen,
                             if she laughs, laughter’s my muse.
She wears blue jeans, then verse is denim.
Say she shows up in a dress and heels,
And now she’ll gladhand a toney crowd,
Well then, a poem that’s known too much dog and pony
And pretends it hails from the provinces,
                     agog with the turn of her ankle,
                  she rating ardor on a sliding scale,
Just might honour how she’s nature’s jewel.
How else would it be, my brain – nature’s jest –
No mind of Zeus spewing forth perfections?
The genius is not me – it’s there, out there,
                 in the colour of the trees, be it fall.
Autumnish, yes, and I know I’m mortal.
What’s more, there are lovers who never learn.
What’s more, there are souls who have to make do
With a single instance of an embrace,
Love made again and again, always.”

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