Can Anyone Out There Hear Me?
“The artistic problem is the problem of making a match between an emotional experience and a form that has been conceived but not created.”—Clive Bell
"Prose is prose because of what it includes. Poetry is poetry because of what it leaves out.”—Marvin Bell
"You don't ask a poet what a poem means; you tell him.” (Source unknown)
I stole the title of this essay from the late Jack Shafer, whose story about the man trapped under the train, calling "Can anybody out there hear me?", and what happens next, can be found in Jack's book, There Is a Season (Strong Stock Press, 2000)—which I’m sure you can borrow from one of his many admirers.
By coincidence, I was recently asked to submit a "writer's statement" for another online poetry journal. This is what I came up with: “I hope my poems entertain and in some small way instruct. Why wish to air explorations of my peculiar mental states in public? To succor the solitary in each of us. To leave a trace. To try out for a spot on the litrachur team, even third string. The brass ring for me is solving the puzzle, corralling heat in a felicitous form, the surprise, and any change in the reader/listener.” (www.speechlessthemagazine.org, Summer 2006).
I grew up in a house where floor-to-ceiling bookshelves were opposite the door to my childhood bedroom. Most of the books—hardcover, mind you—had been bought and read before I was born, but now and then a new one appeared. And a few of them were children's books. I suppose it was A Child's Treasury of Literature that got me started. It is hard to explain why I invested books with such importance, but I have been inside homes with nothing to read in sight but TV Guide, and let me tell you, it is a creepy feeling. The point is, the notion of author as a privileged status was firmly planted in my psyche before adolescence.
I began writing poetry after reading A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, at age 14. His “wry melancholy” was exactly pitched to my mood at the time. Housman’s strict meter and rhyme (and brevity), like the children’s poetry I had read in A Child's Treasury of Literature, appealed to me the way a puzzle with a clever solution does. During my undergraduate years I wrote poems almost exclusively addressed to women, in the style of Housman. Predictably, most of those poems are about “lost love:”
In younger days, and gayer,
When heart and soul were one,
When both were free from care
And we alone were there
Beneath the setting sun,
I turned to see your face
And found reflected there
The peace and love and grace
of a more celestial place
Than earth alone could bear.
I used to find your lips the taste
To drink till senses drowned
A crueler world I since have faced
And now more love has gone to waste
Than ever since I found.
In a few cases, there was an exchange of poems, a dialogue. You can be sure I can still put my hands on every one I received. So I used poetry almost from the beginning as a form of communication, primarily with the opposite sex, a stratagem for an unsure boy incapable/afraid of expressing his feelings without embellishment or disguise.
Perhaps because the poetry that first appealed to me was so strictly formal (after Housman I glommed onto Richard Wilbur), I think of a poem as a kind of machine. Typically, I do not know what the “whole” is until I have written through an initial draft; the “payoff” moments for me in writing poetry come when I discover/recognize what it is I am really writing about and am able to find the right words and phrasing. Few satisfactions compare to feeling the last piece of a poem “click into place.” The best happens when I get a slight shiver when I finish reading the poem (it’s rare, but it happens enough to keep me coming back.) And for me a poem is not only a machine, but also a vehicle: I expect it to move from one place to somewhere else.
As a life-long classical music listener, I consider it high achievement indeed if a poem has the pathos of a phrase in a Chopin nocturne and the delight of a Mozart rondo. (To answer the question you are not asking, I’d say the composer whose music I’d like my poetry to resemble most is probably Poulenc.)
I did not start out writing poetry with the expectation of reading it in front of audiences. I thought only in terms of publication in print. My first published poem appeared in Caffeine in LA about ten years ago. Then I had the good luck to have several poems accepted by Amélie Frank and Matthew Niblock for their poetry journal, Blue Satellite. I will be forever in their debt.
In this era of multiplying live poetry venues, there is a connection with an audience that is unlike getting a poem printed in a journal. I cannot improve on Gene Justice’s observations about the role of audience in the creative process, which appeared in his essay in poeticdiversity.
I have what I consider to be a privileged position (meaning I feel privileged to have the position, not that I am privileged), that of co-host of an established poetry reading. As the person who has done most of the scheduling of weekly features for about eight years, I have tried to be diligent about attending a variety of readings, and about buying chapbooks as well as commercial books and CDs. Being involved in the poetry community in this way is extremely rewarding. One of the gratifying aspects is witnessing a constant influx of new poets, and the development of some poets from unsure and predictable to authoritative and surprising.
Another gratifying aspect of my role is to be able to introduce people to other poets, readings and workshops. I have benefited enormously from workshops with Jack Grapes, Cecilia Woloch, Richard Garcia, Brendan Constantine, Suzanne Lummis. I would be nowhere without the encouragement and impetus of these workshops, and of the Idyllwild summer poetry workshops. (I cannot recommend Idyllwild highly enough.) I know how important it is to receive encouragement, validation, and I make a point of giving encouragement whenever I can.
In fine, I value and practice poetry as communication and community. Nothing new there, I grant you, but then neither is wanting to be heard, to make the human connection. What is older than that? And yet it’s always new, isn’t it?