Monday, November 22, 2004

Mike has smartly answered my questions (below), but in such a way as to confirm what probably anybody following this exchange already knew: that we have completely incommensurate ideas as to the role and value of poetry. A lot of talk about numbers: the circulation of magazines, the low sales of poetry ("No one buys poetry"—for a truly eloquent response to this, please see Jordan's comments on Mike's blog), the 500,000 readers of The Atlantic (is the circulation really that high? do they really care about the poetry that's already in the magazine? Who reads The Atlantic for the generally glib and dreary poems printed therein?), etc. I for one am not sure that poetry's impact on people and on the culture is so easily quantified—isn't the overpowering impulse toward quantification and reification something we seek an alternative to in poetry? I want poetry to be a realm in which I can freely seek my desire (as well as interrogate those desires that have been interpolated by the society around me—my desire for a huge audience, for instance), and so I stake a claim for writing out from and back to my own heart, as complex and cragged as I wanna be, having faith the whole while that others' hearts and intellects are included in that circuit.

Which is not to say that I seek a closed circuit. Maybe the difference between Mike and I can be summed up this way: he wants poetry to be an art like any other, where a small group of artists shares a wide audience of non-artists. Whereas I've believed for a while now that the common lament, "only poets read poetry" is actually cause for optimism and celebration. I've probably said this before, but: I think the purpose of poetry is to turn its readers into poets. You can read a novel or see an opera without thinking once of being a participant in the form, but I've never read a poem that stirred me that didn't also stimulate my desire to write. And again, since I'm a human being, my desire can be taken as a sign of others' equivalent desire. The set "writers of poetry" has never grown so quickly or visibly as it has in our era. Almost every day I become aware of another person who practices and/or values a form of writing that I find exciting—they start a blog, or send me an e-mail, or publish a poem in a journal, or a chapbook or a book, or I hear them read. Sure, there are lots of bad poets too, but I've never seen the widsom of sending a lot of critical energy their way. I'd rather talk about what puts my nervous system on alert, what makes me feel like I'm meeting another's fully energized consciousness on the page.

"Difficult" poetry is difficult because it can't be absorbed passively: it demands a response, an effort at completion or better, extension. It asks the reader to give up his or her secure ground and swim a little—which is exactly what a writer has to do. If I want to be reassured, or comforted, or to smile a little bit, I'd rather watch TV than read poems that only aspire to the level of TV (even really good TV). O'Hara still said it best: "If people don't need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too." I like the movies, too, but I also need poetry. And I see no good way to convince other people that they need poetry without compromising what poetry wants to be: not a commodity.

I say all this not knowing how "difficult" my own poems might seem to others, or whether Mike would judge me to be "foolishly contented" over on my little corner of Parnassus. I say all this while putting the highest value on craft; while believing in the importance of acquiring a deep knowledge of the poetic traditions of at least two languages; while delighting in poetry that works on the most childish and somatic levels of pure sound; while longing for an experience and expression of what used to be called the sublime. There's a lot of desire coalescing around "poetry" for me, and I refuse to compromise on any of it. And when I've pitched myself into the dark at the greatest possible velocity, that's when I've felt myself caught and buoyed by a surprisingly responive world. That might be luck or privilege, but it might also be that we're meant to rev up our desires to the highest possible pitch, even if what we desire might seem outrageous or out of date or snobby or in poor taste. "You just go on your nerve," Frank said, with a profound knowledge of French and American poetry and art behind him and New York spread before him like a endlessly opening network of friends and lovers. That's the vision of poetry that I'd like to live. Down with audiences, up with friends and lovers! Vive la poésie difficile.

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