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:
â€œ[â€¦]/ This is for youâ€”who dance and pipe on pipes,/ sell yourselves openly,/ sin in secret,/ and picture your future as academicians/ with outsized rations./ I admonish you,/ Iâ€”/ genius or notâ€”/ who have forsaken trifles/ and work in Rosta*,/ I admonish youâ€”/ 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./ [â€¦] There are no fools today/ to crowd open mouthed round a â€œmaestroâ€/ and await his pronouncement./ Comrades!/ give us a new form of artâ€”/ an art/ that will pull the republic out of the mud.â€
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?