Friday, January 28, 2011

Poetry in Jackson

Town Square at night, Jackson, WY, January 2011

There is a good used book store here in Jackson, Wyoming. Every time I visit this store, which I do only once a year or so, which means every time that I am in town, I come away with some great books, often ones I've been thinking about or looking for. I have no idea if there's a poetry or arts scene in Jackson, as my interest here is primarily geological, and also a bit of personal history. (This is, after all, where I spent my summer after high school, studying geology, as my first college course: geology taught in the field, here in the mountains of Wyoming and the surrounding region.) I also have no idea of the scene because my presence in Jackson is rarely more than transitory.

On this visit, I am here for several days—as a sort of vacation I am treating myself to, and also to spend much of my time making photographs and video in the mountains (revisiting some of those same exact places I first visited as a geology student). I spent most of today in Grand Teton National Park, doing my visual artwork. But I also spent part of the day lounging about, doing nothing, existing on genuine djam vakasi, or vacation time. Which is a lot like djam karet, or rubber time: take off the watch, just mark your day by the sun's position in the sky, and forget about everything else. On American Indian reservations, they call it going on Indian time.

So, as part of my vacation time today, for reasons only of personal interest and pleasure, I wandered again into this good used book store here in Jackson, and once again was rewarded: I picked up three excellent volumes of poetry.

First, a sidebar: I have admitted to not writing much poetry lately, and not feeling like it, much. The truth is: I am saving my poetry-writing chops, if you will, for a set of lyrics for a musical project I am deeply engaged in just now, and for the next few months. Writing a song lyric is an exercise in "less is more," but also in making every syllable count, as you have maybe four or eight lines in which to tell an entire story. You have to be precise and detailed. It takes a lot of effort. Because of this project I am engaged with now, I can feel my poetry skills and abilities kicking in, but they are focused on these song lyrics to the exclusion of other writing. I'm not even journalling much at the moment. (Summation: I'm on a roadtrip. I'm in Jackson for several days. The altitude sickness is kicking my ass, because of my pre-existing other illnesses; so I've been feeling symptoms of anemia and tiredness that are illusory relapses, caused by the lack of oxygen at higher elevations. I'm drinking enough water to drown Kansas. I'm having to take it easy, again because of the altitude, and my exercise regimen is taking a hit, although I'm making up for it by hiking out in the cold, which takes a lot of effort. In short, I'm in heaven. I'm exactly where I want to be, at this exact moment.) But the song lyrics are starting to flow—which is interesting, because the "feel" of writing lyrics I know will be set to music is so similar to the "feel" of writing a poem, yet also very different, because the skills are also similar yet different.

Songwriting requires a kind of restraint that more discursive, "pure" poetry rarely attempts—of course that's one reason song lyrics often cannot stand on their own, on the printed page, as poems. The mistake most poets make, in their bias towards words over all other media, is in thinking that song lyrics are poems, and can be judged by the same standards. Wrong! Lyrics are meant to synergize with the music, not stand on their own: lyrics are never meant to be "pure" poetry. A great lyric in a great song works because of the total package, not just because the lyrics are genius—even when they are. This bias that poets have about words shows itself most clearly when they focus on the lyrics and ignore the power of the music. Music in a song isn't just ornamentation or decoration for the brilliant words; it's half, or more, of the power of the piece.

Most "pure" poets make lousy songwriters (although one or two songwriters really are good poets—and no, Dylan and Cohen are not of this number, despite their cults): they become so enamored with using every trick of their craft, so in love are they with poetry itself, with the magic and beauty of words, that the song lyrics they produce tend to be over-written, overly discursive, and far too self-consciously "poetic." I say most poets, here, even though many professional songwriters also have this failing: it's always a temptation to show off how great you are at writing poetic lines, at making the words beautiful, and forgetting that focused compression in song lyrics is critical. Poets who mostly write sonnets make lousy lyric-writers, in general; while haiku-writers tend to already know the virtues of compression and precision, of evoking a momentary emotion using economy of means. Perhaps many songwriters would benefit from formal study of haiku, from time to time.

And to be honest, I just haven't much felt like writing poems this past year. I've written a few good poems, I hope, after a long hiatus broken by a brush with serious illness; but the past year was mostly devoted to music, photography, and other artistic pursuits. Of course several poet friends have already expressed to me their disquiet at this turn of events—which is flattering, in a way—yet I can't help but feel that this once again shows a bias that many poets have towards their own artform over all others. It's a kind of tunnel vision. Will the world come to an end if I never contribute another poem? Hardly; although some comments have seemed to imply that it might—again, that's flattering—yet that doesn't take into account my basic practice of artistic crop rotation.

I suppose I just have to accept that some friends will never understand that I genuinely do not care if I ever write another poem. I probably will: but I genuinely don't care. I'm a heretic again, I suppose, in not caring about the same things others seem to care about, and in not viewing Poetry as either essential to my well-being or as my own primary artform. But if I were to force myself to try to write a poem, just now, it would be only to please others, not because I felt the urge and need in myself—and experience has proven the product of such misguided efforts to always have been a waste of time.

Anyway, today, on my vacation time, I picked up three books of poetry. Or rather, two books of poems, and one about poetry.

The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth, ed. by Sam Hamill and Bradford Morrow. Rexroth has been much on my radar this past year, both for his poetry and his writing about poetry. Certainly he was one of the biggest influences on 20th C. poetry, both through the people he taught and influenced directly, and through his own work as poet and cheerleader for poetry. He was, after all, one of the first West Coast poets to look all the way to Asia for his sources, a neo-classicist who looked to Tu Fu and Li Po and the japanese poets, not only to Milton and Shakespeare. (His similarities to and greater differences from Ezra Pound largely revolve around this point.) My appreciation for Rexorth has been deepening the more I look into his work, and having this Complete Poems is going to be useful indeed.

Conrad Aiken: A Letter from Li Po & Other Poems. This is a hardcover of the 1955 first publication, possibly a first printed edition—although I can't be sure, as in those days it wasn't always publishing practice to label first editions as such; it depended on the publisher. Aiken, that most musical of poets, that poet most dedicated to the musical line, the sound and cadence of poetry, here is in his most reflective mode, in the long title poem. Another Asian influence on American poetry.

I recently read a poet's opinion that what makes American poetry uniquely American, as opposed to its early cultural enslavement to and imitation of European models, is when it creates a balance between the East and the West; something Rexroth, Aiken, Gary Snyder, and many poets of the San Francisco Renaissance were the first to accomplish; all of which came into fruition mid-20th C. (Granted, this doesn't account for Whitman and Dickinson; but it could be argued that they were precursors who were not ignorant of Asian influence, either, as it came through Emerson and Thoreau.) Poets like myself, who continue to balance East and West—in my case literally, being an American who grew up in Asia—are the next generation or two after Rexroth; which accounts in part for my interest in his work just now, as if I felt called to fill in the lineages in my own poetic genealogy.

Aiken was a poet I became enthralled by in my teens, precisely because his program was overtly musical, deliberately syncretic and sensual. Years later, I also discovered Aiken's Collected Criticism, which remains in my opinion a role model of elegant and insightful reviewing. This edition of A Letter from Li Po, whether or not it's an actual first printing of the first published edition, is satisfying to own, to fill out more of my Aiken collection; and the book, as a book, is beautifully typeset and designed.

The third book found today was Toward a New Poetry, by Diane Wakowski, one of the series of "Poets On Poetry" collections from University of Michigan Press.

Wakowski, writing thirty years ago about poets, poetry criticism, the poetry workshop situation, and everything both wrong and right with all of them, could have been writing yesterday. It's remarkable how little has changed. The same issues are still in the air—perhaps more urgently, as the condition of poetry publishing 30 years ago has both shrunk and exploded. Publishing itself has fundamentally changed. Wakowski's criticism, which she clearly states is that not of a critic but of a poet, contains many thoughtful insights.

Reading Wakowski here, noticing how little seems to have changed in poetry and literature, is dismaying. I guess poets just won't grow up. Oh, individual poets do—Rexroth and Aiken are both examples of individual poets who operated as independent-minded adults in the poetry world—but as a tribe, there appears to be a gravitational pull towards remaining infantile, self-involved, and disconnected from the rest of the world. Wakowski, in these essays, keeps trying to cajole her readers, which she knows are her peers, since most people who read poetry are poets, into a wider sense of appreciation of poetry (why can't I like very different poetry from very different poets?), into a style of criticism that is inclusive rather than dismissive and hostile, into, in a word, growing up and acting like adults. That so little has changed in thirty years is not Wakowski's failing, but rather an indication of severe cultural inertia. Clearly Wakowski cares passionately about the poetry world, and wants it to thrive. At the same time, she is clear-eyed about both its triumphs and its flaws.

Wakowski, whose poetry I admit I have never really liked all that much, has for me in this volume a much clearer voice. Reading these essays, collected columns, interviews, and lectures, I feel I have a much clearer understanding of her ideas, and her approach to poetry. I admit that reading these essays and other articles has given me new respect for her. Perhaps I will be able to go back to her poems, now, and appreciate them more.

This is a problem parallel to one I have had with many of the poets published by Black Sparrow Press, who published and still publish many of Wakowski's books of poems. There are many famed stalwarts of Black Sparrow Press who I have tried, more than once, to get into, yet in the end have always felt repelled. I've always had this problem with Black Sparrow poets; so perhaps it is my idiosyncratic problem. Or it may be an issue of the publisher's editorial preferences. Yet it seems to me that the majority of poets published by Black Sparrow have often been of that self-absorbed, urban-centric, narrow-focused West Coast big city variety that admits of no interest in anything other than the human drama. Many volumes are devoted to the dramas of human interaction among people who live in the big cities; the rest of the universe doesn't seem to exist. There's an insular circularity to many of these poets' concerns, which orbit around personal trials and interpersonal angers that I can't seem to care about. This type of poetry is opposite to the West Coast poetry of Rexorth, Robinson Jeffers, William Everson, Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan—all of whom sought and found something transpersonal, transhuman and mythic in poetry. Of course I am making sweeping generalizations here, and there will be exceptions; yet this is an issue about Black Sparrow I have tried to address numerous times, without success.

I have a fondness for the "Poets on Poetry" series, as it collects criticism and essays about poetry as written by poets, which I think is often more interesting, and less fundamentally wrongheaded, than criticism of poetry written by non-poets. What poets have to say about their own work is fascinating, even if you end up disagreeing. Partly that's because reading what poets have to say gives one insight into the creative process, both theirs and your own.

Of course, in reading this collection of Wakowski's essays, one notes that, then as now, most readers of poetry are poets and/or teachers of poetry. That hasn't changed. (The whining about it has increased, though.) Wakowski openly embraces this situation as something positive, which is in contrast to most opinions on the topic. She is not afraid of being insular about a special interest which only a few care passionately about. She points out that, during her nomadic years of teaching workshops and being a poet-in-residence at many different colleges, wherever she went she encountered a small but dedicated community to talk to, who cared deeply about the same things she cares about. Wakowski's sense of poetry community is a positive one; she quite consciously presents it as an alternative to cynical views about competition and fragmentation. As often as I have myself felt a total lack of community in the poetry world, I applaud Wakowski for presenting this positive alternative. Maybe it could still happen; maybe it could still be so.

And the "Poets on Poetry" series is published at the University of Michigan, my alma mater, so that's an extra dose of interest on my part. I didn't know when I lived in Ann Arbor that it was such a hotbed of literary work, thought, and publishing.

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