Jun 27

"Part of Being a Great Poet Is..."


"Part of being a great poet is having great pictures of yourself taken," Tess Gallagher told our class back in '87; and I admit to being fascinated by author photos, especially studio or "studied" photos such as these here. Such photos alone express the high drama and confidence involved in the work of writing -- never otherwise visible. Probably for the drama of it, authors are traditionally photographed only in black & white. True, I've seen some super-dramatic, off-putting, plunge-neckline jacket photos, but most writers have more taste than that.

Here's Tess (photographed in Washington State by Corbin) in 1987, about age 44, when I knew her; the picture is on her book Amplitude: New and Selected Poems. And here's Vladimir Mayakovsky as a 20-year-old art student in 1913, the year he published his collection "I" and blew some windows out of the Moscow literary establishment. I like how Mayakovsky defined himself in a poem: "I'm not a man; I'm a cloud in trousers!"

Poet Marina Tsvetayeva, Mayakovsky's contemporary, left a hint on what she thought writers should wear: "Clothes that are not beautiful in the wind are not beautiful at all."
Jun 27

When Poets Gave Orders

"We order that the poets’ rights be revered:

  • To enlarge the scope of the poet’s vocabulary with arbitrary and derivative words (word-novelty).
  • To feel an insurmountable hatred for the language existing before their time.
  • To push with horror off their proud brow the wreath of cheap fame that You have made from bathhouse switches [clearer translation: "from toothpicks"].
  • To stand on the rock of the word “we,” amidst the sea of boos and outrage."
The above is from the Russian Futurists' manifesto, "A Slap in the Face of Public Taste," 1912. By comparison, our poets are people-pleasers and wusses. Each of these century-old demands is, for poets in 2008, a total taboo. We say, "I don't think your experiment with coining new words is very successful," and "I don't know where you'll find a market for this," and "If only I could make it into Best American Poetry 2009," and "I can't figure out who is that collective 'we' being referenced in your poem."

By comparison, how timid we are! And how powerless! Are those things linked?
Apr 25

What People Say

A very serious young student heard me read from my poems. I asked her opinion later. (Never do that.) She said, "Cute."

She was being pompous in a twentysomething way (recalling too well my own flaming youth), but this lodged in me like a grain of sand in an oyster. Of all the things I've been and ever aimed to be, I've never wanted to be cute. I'd like to be entertaining, like Chaucer, but also have his smarts. Coy, kittenish -- no!

A hundred defenses occured to me: She doesn't register my feminist politics -- because she's so young she never had to have any! -- She has no idea what poetry costs! -- and so forth.

Then I saw this Soviet-era quotation from a poem addressed to poets:

“[…]/ This is for you—who dance and pipe on pipes,/ sell yourselves openly,/ sin in secret,/ and picture your future as academicians/ with outsized rations./ I admonish you,/ I—/ genius or not—/ who have forsaken trifles/ and work in Rosta*,/ I admonish you—/ before they disperse you with rifle-butts/ Give it up!/ Give it up!/ Forget it./ Spit/ on rhymes/ and arias/ and the rose bush/ and other such mawkishness/ from the arsenal of the arts./ […] There are no fools today/ to crowd open mouthed round a “maestro”/ and await his pronouncement./ Comrades!/ give us a new form of art—/ an art/ that will pull the republic out of the mud.”

Spot-on, I thought. Was that what my student had meant? But has a poet ever done that? Maybe Whitman? But with such a muddied republic as ours is? Can it be done? What would it cost me? Should a poet care what it might cost?

[from The Bedbug and Selected Poems, by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Indiana University Press, 1975. Translated from Russian by Edwin Morgan. *"Rosta" is a contraction of "Russian Telegraph Agency"; the line's connotation is "and give my all for our people."]