April 8, 2015KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsReadingWriting

Trophies

In The Rag-Picker’s Guide to Poetry, Rick Barot, one of the book’s contributors, offers this bit of testimony about his development as a writer:

For years, what I cared about were images. If the images were exact and memorable in any poem I wrote, they were the measure of that poem’s success. The visual world had a wonderful tyranny. I see now that that love of images was also the love for the quietude that poems can manifest: given a powerful image, the eye can look, the eye can rest.

But to love the music in a poem is to love its motion, the motion that is after all the main imperative of time and the earth.

I’ve been thinking about that imperative: the imperative to move. Near the end of Angels in America, the would-be prophet Prior says, “We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks—progress, migration, motion is . . . modernity. It’s animate, it’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s still desire for. Even if we go faster than we should. We can’t wait.”

Or as Richard Pryor once said to Officer Zielinski, “If I stop I’ll die.” (Granted, he was on fire when he said it. But he was sort of right.)

How do we capture that kind of motion in poetry? Kenneth Koch, in Making Your Own Days, writes, “Language is like a car able to go two hundred miles an hour but which is restricted by the traffic laws of prose to a reasonable speed. Poets are fond of accelerating: ‘In the dark backward and abysm of time’ (Shakespeare); ‘They hurl with savage force their stick and stone / And no one cares and still the strife goes on’ (John Clare); ‘I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags’ (Whitman).”

In ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound announces, “Music rots when it gets too far from the dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.”

Pound is sort of right. And yet, and yet . . . one shouldn’t, perhaps, announce. (Gertrude Stein on Pound: “A village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.”) Such announcements invite a different kind of movement: the movement of the parodist’s pen. Of all the poetry collections published in the past fifteen years, the one I’ve most returned to, save for works by a few close friends, is Loren Goodman’s Famous Americans. No lover of quietude, Goodman offers, as W. S. Merwin writes in the book’s foreword, “a repertoire of slips and slides, irreverent improvisations, satiric contortions, occasionally obvious and at other times surprising in the way of funhouse-mirror distortions.” Here’s Goodman’s recasting of Pound:

AMBITION

When music moves away
From dance, atrophy sets in

When poetry moves away
From music, atrophy sets in

I want one of those
Trophies