Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Paul Monette: Outside Poetry

Following up on the writing of Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog, Paul Monette published in 1994, not long before his own death from AIDS, a final volume of poetry: West of Yesterday, East of Summer: new and Selected Poems (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994). I want to reprint here his story of the writing of Love Alone, which has come to be considered one of the great moments in literature regarding the AIDS epidemic, because it has insight into the poetry establishment and being a poetry outsider. I relate to this story on the level of sympathy for suffering, but also a poet who feels himself to be more of an outsider than establishment poet; experience certainly gives that view credence.

The story begins when Paul's life-partner, Roger Horwtiz, was dying from AIDS. Paul had been feeling unable to write, so bound up was he with the emotions and suffering around caring for Rog. He had long ago turned from writing poems to writing novels and non-fiction, which is still his best-known work. As Rog was dying, Paul read him the new poem. This is from the Introduction to Monette's New and Selected Poems:

I ripped through my recitation with unpunctuated force and when I got to the end there was silence. I thought maybe he'd fallen asleep.

Then he spoke with a soft astonishment. "Sweetheart, that's terrific. How can you say you'll never write again?"

But that's exactly what I'd say, lying in his arms late at night, sobbing as if my heart would break. "I can't do it without you," I'd say. "Yes, you can," came the soothing reply. "And besides, I'm still here."

But then five weeks later he wasn't anymore, and I figured I'd died too. His doctor's admonition the night he died—"You have to write about him, Paul"—was just so much empty advice. Then, it must have been two weeks later, I was standing watch at the grave in Forest Lawn, as I did every day while dusk fell. Next morning I had to leave for Boston to visit my parents, who hadn't seen me in a year and a half, dreading every minute of the further separation from Roger.

And I suddenly realized that if the plane went down tomorrow, there would be no record anywhere of what we'd suffered and how love got us through. So I sat in the grass in the failing light and opened my journal and scribbled about twenty-five lines—the poem called "Here"—and that night I propped it on my desk, labeled "To Whom It May Concern."

The next day on the plane to Boston I pulled out the journal again, and wrote the whole of "No Goodbyes," in a torrent of unfiltered feeling. And that is how they were all written from then on, at least the first ten, entirely WITHOUT THINKING. An endless catalogue of the lost, nothing too minor to heave onto the pyre of my dead days. I don't doubt that some shaping imagination was at work, even so, but it stayed resolutely unconscious, completely on its own. I had no sense that anyone else would want them, but I hadn't counted on the luck of its crossing the desk of [editor] Michael Denneny, who was ready to go to contract with half the poems in place.

So Love Alone is at least half journal poems. This breaks every one of the usual rules: usually there's no way that good poems can come out of raw journal-writing. We see thousands of new poems every year that are jsut journal-entries, from teenage angst poets who have just discovered Artur Rimbaud (usually boys) or Sylvia Plath (usually girls) to poets just finishing their MFAs in creative writing who haven't enough life-experience as yet to write about anything other than how their cat just died and their girlfriend dumped them. Usually journal-poems suck, because the people who proffer them haven't enough life-experience yet to be able to have anything to say.

But Monette's journal-poems are sublime. Why do they work? Why don't they suck? One truthful answer is that Monette is by this time in life an experienced writer, with published books of poetry and award-winning novels under this belt. He is both an experienced writer and he has something to say. He dumps his raw feelings onto the page, but being a writer, he dumps his feelings through his art, coherently, clearly, and with all his writer's craft online. There was indeed a "shaping imagination" somewhere at work in the mix, even as Monette was writing the elegies at white heat. I feel connected to that experience: in some ways, Monette is describing exactly how I have been feeling when writing the Letters series poems.

Monette continues:

the volume [Love Alone] appear in March of 1988, and when the first copy appeared by overnight express, I sat at my desk sobbing and saying over and over, "Rog, we did it." Whatever intrinsic merit the elegies had, I'd accomplished what I set out to do, leaving a record of our love and times. It was in the nature of an unexpected bonus that os many people responded enthusiastically to the work—not put off or bewildered as we feared by the run-on frenzy of the style, the banishing of punctuation. Moreover, I even got my wish as I had stated in the Preface: That the readership proved to be drawn from the ranks of the AIDS-afflicted and the grief-haunted, and not from that plucky little band of the general poetry reader.

But that wasn't nearly as odd as the reaction of the general poetry WRITER. For old times' sake, I sent out eight or ten copies to my [poet] colleagues from a decade ago, most of whose work I'd loyally kept up with—despite its being the opposite of mine. So perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised by the responses. Two poets wrote back nearly identical letters, in which they dismissed "Love Alone" as "not being poetry at all, really. Too raw and too unfiltered, and of course riddled with clichés." But clearly an important "document," all the same.

"It's clearly more like performance art, isn't it? Have you thought of showing it to Eric Bogosian?"

And my favorite: "Thank you for the book, with that wonderful picture of you and Roger on the cover. I'll cherish it. The text, I'm afraid, is not my thing."

This is the point at which I want to talk about insider and outsider poetry. What we have here is an example of something raw and rather original being rejected by the poetry mandarins. Who's to say what's poetry and what's not? Who's got the right to define and own what poetry is or is not?

I've run into this myself on occasion; I have had a poetry mandarin actually say to my face that something I wrote was not a poem. It was nothing he recognized as a poem. I challenged him on his pronouncement, though, and got him to finally admit that he could make no objection to the content or style of the poem, his objections were purely moral ones based on his rejection of the experimental form i was using.

If something cannot be poetry because it's too raw and unfiltered—even though Monette's shaping imagination was at work on some level in the poems, not neglecting or ignoring the craft of an experience writer—then nothing I've ever written can be called poetry. No experiments can be called poems. By this (conservative, formalist, stick in the mud) standard of definition, Tennyson is poetry but Ginsberg is not, Eliot is poetry but Corso is not. And that's patently absurd.

As Monette adds in his Introduction to the New and Selected Poems:

I can only imagine what the silver-tongued response will be to the body of "New Poems." Too political by a mile, unbearably strident, nothing reflected on, no FORM. Well, at least they've got all that right. Raw being just how AIDS has left me, flayed of layers of skin I didn't know I had—flayed to the bone—I was screaming as much as composing when I sat to write. Pain was pain, not wisdom, and the idea of waxing metaphorical and philosophical about such horrors seemed at best presumptuous, at worst insulting. So if I have succeeded in convincing the mainstream run of poets—with their Guggenheims and their tenure tracks, with their surefooted march to "Selected" [Poems], "Collected," "Complete"—that I mean to stay an outsider, lobbing my poems like pipe bombs, so be it.

I relate so well to all of this. I relate to the rawness, as I go through my own chronic illness. I relate to the aspects of rejection and affirmation alike. This paragraph amounts to an outsider's manifesto. Monette's rejection of philosophical abstraction in his poetry is one I largely agree with; I have been saying for years that poems written solely from the head ultimately fail, because they only mimic the complete range of human experience, which must embrace suffering as well as ecstasy.

I write poems that have no FORM all the time, that record pain as pain, rather than the idea of pain one step removed. I write things that I'm sure the tenure-track poets would not recognize as poetry, but when shared non-professional poets get plaudits. I write poem-like substances, rather than poems, perhaps. And if so, I am content with that.

Although he is gone, Paul Monette feels to me like a brother. As far as the poetry world goes, I'm content to be an outsider, just as he was.

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