Poet’s Mousehole

July 12, 2010 § 2 Comments

Marble sarcophagus with the contest between the Muses and the Sirens Roman, Severan period, 3rd quarter of the 3rd century A.D. Metropolitan Museum. Athena, Zeus, and Hera preside over a musical contest between the Muses and Sirens. The Muses are defeating the Sirens.

I’ve been meaning to get to the Poet’s House showcase of all the new poetry books published this year, and when I do, maybe I’ll write about it. Today I saw an article on the subject in the New York Times, and felt a pang of regret that I hadn’t written something myself two weeks ago and submitted it. But so it goes. I was struck by the quote at the end of the article, from Kimiko Hahn. “When you see the books and chapbooks represented at Poets House in any given year, you can see how poetry is not in the margins of people’s lives. It’s really at the center of people’s lives.”

It’s at the center of some people’s lives (particularly those who’ve published a book of it in the last year). It is of interest to a wider and more diverse group than writers and academics, and perhaps it’s vitally important to many individuals who’ve never heard of 99.9 % of contemporary published poets. But in respect to the vast majority of people who, if they’d been born in a different era, would have read or at least heard of all the acclaimed new poets: no. Poetry is in the margins. It’s there and it’s stuck there and all the prizes and poet laureates and occasional commercial success (Billy Collins, Mary Oliver) aren’t going to pull it out. If, after a lovely dinner, when the candles are guttering and the last wine is being poured, you ask your guests to listen while you read aloud a poem by your new favorite poet, they’ll be charmed (possibly); they may even promise themselves to read more poetry. They won’t. If you put a poem at the end of every blog post, as some people are known to do, many readers will skip those poems. How many I’d prefer not to know.

It’s exquisitely painful as an artist to be so out of step with the times her very genre is nearly obsolete, but I don’t know that there’s anything to be done about it. Poetry in Motion—those wonderful short poems on the New York subways, a brilliant idea of Molly Peacock’s—reached those literate after dinner guests, the firefighters Kimiko Hahn mentioned who ignore the people and save the books (no, I made that part up) and some others, but I doubt it moved anyone to buy more than one book of poetry, if that. You can’t do anything about the pain either. It’s ridiculous to say writers write for themselves, so don’t say it to any writers you know. It’s like saying loving oneself is the most important thing. It’s important because without it, no other love can flourish, but if you stop there, that love won’t flourish either. Writers need readers. We can get by with a few. Emily Dickinson and Emily Bronte managed with their few. Some manage with none if they have a passionate belief in future readers; they have very strong souls. And they suffer.

Poetry—as opposed to doggerel—is in the margins. If you’re 16 or of a certain melancholic, romantic temperament, you can make a tiny flame from that word ‘margins’, make it seem like endangered wetlands with their 10,000 species, or twilight, a daily phenomenon justly famous long before the movie; you can search for the new liminal (a word cherished by poets a decade or so ago, now sucked dry and abandoned to PR writers); you can view your small audience as the only one that matters.

And it is. But only to you.

My Grandmother’s Love Letters

There are no stars tonight
But those of memory.
Yet how much room for memory there is
In the loose girdle of soft rain.

There is even room enough
For the letters of my mother’s mother,
That have been pressed so long
Into a corner of the roof
That they are brown and soft,
And liable to melt as snow.

Over the greatness of such space
Steps must be gentle.
It is all hung by an invisible white hair.
It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.

And I ask myself:

“Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is the silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As though to her?”

Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand
Through much of what she would not understand;
And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof
With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.

Hart Crane


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