Am I embarrassing myself?
A reasonable question: I’d just posted a poem that invoked love, loss, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca and included a joke about sex. I cannot count the ways that might be bad.
Poetry is new territory for me. It arose from a desire for something freer: language liberated from literality into forms that speak as much as content, creations that have the capacity to delight or move, sometimes mysteriously.
I’m nearing 60, an age by which cognitive erosions are palpable and mounting. The memory fades; the clarity; the sharpness. Distressing, and yet perhaps also an opportunity: Maybe the involuntarily loosening mind can more readily align with the non-linear nature of poetry, as the cohering mind of youth more readily acquires a foreign language. This is what I hope: that the wild discipline of poetry might teach me to speak loveliness in a new way before I am without a tongue to do so.
Even a fragment of what once was can shine with the beauty of the whole, as Rainier Marie Rilke writes in Archaic Torso of Apollo:
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
You must change your life: The call to something finer, which even the aging ear hears.
So I have been attempting poetry, seeking something other than the defaced expression of my younger self that prose sometimes seems to offer. Occasionally, a line will glisten, often not, and I fear the overall effect is to confuse or alienate longtime followers of my prose. Poetry worthy of the name requires more of readers as well as writers, a closer attention, a certain kind of exertion; a failure of one or the other can occur in the writer’s call, the reader’s response, or both. Consideration of my own certain failings prompted that painful question, addressed to a fellow blogger: Am I embarrassing myself?
I admire Robert Okaji’s poetry — so distilled and quietly muscular that it steals the breath while permeating the mind — and his response was heartening. (Bob said my poetry has “mouth-feel” — a kind of instinctive appeal — which, for a brief time, made me inwardly prance like Eddie Murphy’s donkey in Shrek when the princess calls him a noble steed.) He also suggested I write a post explaining the changing nature of my writing; this is the best I can manage. And that I alternate forms for readers accustomed to prose offerings, which I will likewise do.
And then Bob leveraged his considerable readership by re-blogging one of my poems, generating encouraging likes and appreciative comments. His spontaneous kindness surprised and restored me, reminding me that our species is capable of great tenderness, as well as great cruelty. I am grateful.
And I am grateful to you, too, for sticking with me as I attempt poems, for being — to paraphrase Edward Hirsch in How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry — the friends I only hope exist, or will exist, the ones my words are seeking.
Despite Bob’s assurances, I suspect I am often a donkey. Yet the gift of your attention makes me feel like a noble steed. If you were here, I’d make you waffles.