December 19, 2017

With Praise for the Work of the Poets

There has been an ongoing theme in many of my poetry and poetics discussions — one of transformation.

Much of this comes up as we talk about process, at the same time we talk about ways of resisting consumerism, objectification. Ultimately, we try our best to keep in proper perspective this thing called “market,” and “industry,” which is ironic given that little money actually changes hands in the poetry industry.

But it’s also very real that we have a perception of capital and “worth,” in this industry. We have hierarchies of value in this industry. We acknowledge those we perceive as having “cachet.”

So, where does transformation, and transformative experience “fit” in this industry.

My grad students and I had been hinting at these things all semester, sensing that some works did something to us, and we tried our best to give that “something” words. Work that was “meaningful,” respectfully engaging its constituents, thoughtfully crafted and executed, had implications larger than what was presented on the pages, that had emotional resonances, such that readers came away from the work with more than when they entered it.

One of our senior faculty members came to visit our class, to observe my teaching this semester. We were reading Philip Metres’s Sand Opera that evening. Before our mid-seminar break, one of my grad students asked for their thoughts on Metres’s work — it’s an important distinction, our senior faculty member responded, the poet who transforms an experience, versus one who merely transcribes.

And all of our light bulbs went bright with our collective, “Aha.”

We already know of the kind of poetry that merely transcribes. We describe it as underwhelming and even pretentious. We describe the work ethic as lazy. I want to be generous though, and understand transcription as a preliminary part of the process. Yes, we do transcribe, the things we hear, words that strike us, that come from mass media, social media, popular culture, phrasings that make our ears perk up, clever bits of language we mishear or overhear in the world.

I keep a notebook full of these glimmers, intimations. Sometimes real gems of poetry come in these bits of brevity. Those are gifts.

And sometimes they remain just glimmers, with nothing added to them. Bits of untapped potential. Ephemera maybe, at best. Maybe the writer did not know, maybe the writer doesn’t know yet that the glimmer is just the beginning, and that in order for a glimmer of an idea to become poetry, the real poetic work must be done.

This is where I make my confession. I have a major peeve — those who pass off as the most profound poetry what are really just their clever bits of language and observation, transcribed onto the page like mass printing fortunes to stuff into cookies, those who think these fortune cookies are enough; poetry is that cheap, easy, and mass produced for immediate consumption and utility.

Poetry is art object, this I believe. Art objects, exquisitely crafted — here, I think of Jaime Jacinto, Fatima Lim-Wilson, Marjorie Evasco, Merlinda Bobis, Angela Narciso Torres. Just gorgeous to behold, and insisting on being rooted in our social realities. But it’s also true a lot of exquisitely crafted art objects are beyond our reach, inaccessible. That’s not necessarily my cup of tea, though also, “inaccessible” is a relative term.

There are found objects whose beauty and intricacies others have discarded/disregarded. The poet elevates this, transforms it into art or transforms our perception of it by offering different angles/views. Here, I think of the deceptively simple, street-level poetry of Al Robles and Tony Robles. And I also think of Amanda Ngoho Reavey’s re-purposed official documents, and Janice Lobo Sapigao’s rewriting of Silicon Valley. I kind of think of myself in this category as well.

And then there is kitsch. I won’t name names, because that would be mean. And it would be equally mean to not include these as a kind of poetry, though I am tempted. I suppose “kitsch” is also a relative term. But I feel like kitsch, stuff that takes up space, is akin to this transcription. Little risk has been taken.

As a palate cleanser, I will end with this poem from Fatima Lim-Wilson, from her collection, Crossing the Snow Bridge (Ohio State University Press, 1995).

The Dangers of This Craft
by Fatima Lim-Wilson

For your own good, do not claim to be a poet.
-Advice of a well-meaning friend.

How we sing, even as we are boiled alive.
Those who torment us strain to sustain
our last notes. In a landscape
of sameness, our crooked towers scrape
sensibilities, the well-trained eye.
Why, when starved, do we thrive?
Remembrance of childhood’s bread
rising. The taste of dulcified
droppings of air. Our well-
meaning friends beg us, please,
speak in the measured tones
of the mediocre. Show off
our mastery of muteness,
the ambidextrous virtuosity
of work-stained hands. Let
those knitting needles, heavy
handled axes fly. Why must
we hear voices? See the moving
parts of still objects? And so,
we insist we no longer see
through white-washed walls.
We confess our dreams of flying
have ceased. We scheme,
the miracle of money keeping us
awake. Our pleasure lies
in memorizing the exactness
of recipes. We are found to be
most eloquent when quiet, even
as we argue happily with the teeming
inhabitants opening doors in our heads.
We stare seemingly unmoved at the fire
of our burning books, all the while
enthralled, reading secrets in the flames.
They think they’ve killed us off
even as somewhere, everywhere, a child
recalls the beat of the ocean womb.
They dance upon our tombs, unaware
of how they have fallen
victim to the rhythm
of our singing bones.

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