When someone asks, "What do you do?", think twice
before you answer, "I am a poet," unless you are talking
with a group of poets. People tend to remember their difficulty
with poetry, in the course of an education during which poems
were taught as a way of counting syllables (haiku) and recognizing
rhyme schemes. They recall their quest for the Holy Grail of
one correct interpretation that only the teacher knew. They
envision a group of lines that look different from anything
else, lines arranged to engender suspicion or anxiety. They
may even cite not having time to read poetry, as if it is a
luxury item they cannot afford. The quick thinkers may even
fast forward to another question, "What else do you do?",
which can be rephrased as: "You can't actually make a living
doing that, do you?"
And yet, a small group of Americans struggle to embrace this
art form. I specify Americans because every country treats or
mistreats their poets in different ways, showering them with
reverence (preferred) or squashing them. In the United States,
poets are mostly ignored, which can be worse than death or torture
(see Judy's Journal - February 2006). To the opening quotation
by Stanley Kunitz, I will add, "
if you can find an
audience to read it."
Where did my love of reading and writing poetry come from?
In my day, the English curriculum was dominated by dead white
males. In the early 1960's, John Ciardi did a reading at Buffalo
State, and I received credit for attending. I liked his work.
Had I stopped exploring poetry then, I would be in that first
category of people scratching my head when confronted with by
Not long after hearing John Ciardi, I was in a bookstore in
Buffalo, NY and for $1.25 (!) bought a slim volume because I
was attracted by the abstract expressionist cover drawing by
Basil King and the title, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide
. And then I read "Hymn for Lanie Poo."
Today when I found the yellowed 48 page book, I remembered
how it changed my notion of what poetry could be. The poet's
language and themes electrified me. Le Roi Jones took the name
Amiri Baraka and is today one of America's most respected poets.
In 1999 when he read at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, I
had the opportunity to tell him about the effect his book had
on me . He thanked me, signed my book and seemed pleased to
see the relic. It was an honor to meet Baraka because he has
never backed away from themes of social and political protest.
Is he a "popular" poet? No. Will he ever be named
poet laureate? Not likely.
Baraka's publisher was Totem Press/Corinth Books in NYC., and
on the last page is their list of poetry books. Keep in mind
that the year of publication was 1961. The litany of modern
American poets included: Diane di Prima, Allen Ginsberg, Charles
Olsen, Robert Creeley, Bob Brown, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder,
Frank O'Hara and Philip Whalen. Many of them are responsible
for my obsession with poetry today.
How did poetry become an obsession? Reading. Reading. Reading.
Writing. Writing. Writing. Taking classes with poets whose work
I respect. Attending public readings. Do I like or understand
every poem I read or hear? No. Poetry is an acquired taste,
therefore as much falls to the wayside as is embraced.
To describe my personal history of loving poetry, this analogy
applies: If Amiri Baraka was the first on my diving board, the
pool is now filled to overflowing with Kay Ryan, Suzanne Cleary,
Marie Ponsot, Charles Simic, Stanley Kunitz, and Elizabeth Bishop.
Like a surrealist painting come alive, their faces morph into
Robert Francis, Mary Oliver, Denis Johnson, Meg Kearney, Peter
Johnson, Martha Rhodes, Wislawa Szymborska, and Wesley McNair.
The crowd will continue to grow and morph as I take classes,
attend readings and buy books by poets whose work might be unfamiliar
today, but destined to be "in the pool" of favorites.
I am immersed in language and rhythms, but the poetry I choose
to read does not let me drown. It makes me think, it makes me
see things differently, it makes me weep, and it gives me permission
(and courage) to approach the keyboard to write what I need
to write. If you search for work by my favorite poets, and you
will certainly find others you will like better. Connoisseurship
is acquired over time.
Who are your favorite poets? And how would you define "favorite"-
on the basis of a few poems to which you have connected or entire
books? How did you become acquainted with their work? You can
write to me: email@example.com.
Since April is National Poetry Month, my journal will celebrate
that fact in some small way. Imagine: National Poetry Month.
Is it possible that there is hope for poetry in America?