E-mail this site to a friend.
A schooner is anchored for the night in a cove in Penobscot Bay. Kerosene lanterns flicker in the rigging, and lights are on in the summer homes on the surrounding properties. The weather is mild. The ten couples aboard
wile away the last few hours of their vacation, drinking and trying to one-up each other's anecdotes: one woman has delivered a baby in a taxi, another has been on television. One of the crew, a very young man, spins a yarn about piloting a small trawler from Antibes to Portland. There were storms west of the Azores, with waves--he gestures over our heads--taller than this mast. The story sinks in as best it can. A propos of nothing, then, he takes out a Robert Service book, and declares his intention to read his favorite poem, "The Cremation of Sam McGee." It's a hit:
And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm--
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."
The audience chuckles appreciatively, as though he's just done a clever imitation or sung a good chantey. It is one of the very, very few non-ceremonial occasions where I have seen poetry brought to bear in public, 'for mere entertainment.' You wouldn't know it, though, from our reaction. A few of the passengers, to whom my literary pretensions have been leaked, look at me askance, or elbow me in the ribs, expecting me to do him one better. I check my inventory, which on any given day isn't large in the first place. A little Marvell, maybe? Some Stevens? Would "The Snow Man" be in the spirit of the evening? In front of the expectant faces I am disarmed to see at what a remove from the mead hall even
Beowulf now lives. I shake my head, and pass.
It is a moment of significant failure. I consoled myself, for a time, with the thought that poetry is not the single tent it sometimes seems, and that, like music, it has genres, and its practitioners belong to them. No one expects an electric guitar solo out of Eliot Fisk; if he performs one, it's a hoot for that very reason. If I let it slip that I played the violin in the Portland orchestra, no one would have expected me to jump up and start fiddling bluegrass. The styles have bifurcated and matured beyond the point where mastery of both is practical.
But the violin and the fiddle are, after all, the same instrument, and I have not yet been able to avoid the feeling that poetry
is a single tent, and that it is ungracious to disavow association with others taking shelter under it. This feeling may be an artifact of the embattled stance working poets tend to have: music may be healthy, vital, and of general enough appeal to splinter into genres, but poetry has its back against the cultural wall. Or this feeling may derive from the very phenomenon of the anthology, which exerts on poetry a centripetal force that other art forms are largely spared. Or this feeling may lie, less arbitrarily, in an admiration of poetry's inductive tendency: its attempt to arrive at a dynamics, or at least taxonomy, of the inner human being. Insofar as its subject is our nature, a certain, qualified universalism is built in. (The point is potentially contentious, but I maintain I can appreciate Chinese poetry in a way I can't appreciate Chinese music.) It would be convenient, to excuse my dismal non-performance, to classify "The Cremation of Sam McGee" as a different order of phenomenon from "The Snow Man." One requires a fiddler, and the other a violinist, no? But I can't. One
wants to be of service. One ought to be elastic enough to play the instrument both ways.
The problem is not a public misperception of what poets are good for, or that people just aren't reading Milton like they used to, or that one should memorize a good crowd pleaser. The problem is: how to make coextensive a private life of reading and composition, and a public one of practicum and--let us bring the word in, as actors, chefs, and musicians must--entertainment.
I come out of a reading by several name-brand poets vaguely distressed, without a single line ringing in my ears. Not the first time this has happened. I used to put it down to mood, or luck of the draw--not all performances can be
wonderful--but it comes to seem a more serious lapse, and one that even taints my relationship to poems in print. When a poet approaches the podium, now, I inwardly root for him, or her, to tell a joke, tell us about the vacation the poem was written on, tell us how the teaching has been going, tell us about meeting Bishop--anything, finally, to postpone the actual reading, which now seems to refer to a private, excellent experience of poetry of which the public one is only a shadow. Not always, but often. Our gatherings, utterly uninterested in the modest public demand for something diverting, are a sustaining but unnourishing ritual of fellowship.
There is magic in recitation. The act of vocalizing a poem, of turning notations on a page (or, more ineffably, in the memory) into noise, is a compelling trick. Its appeal has less to do with acting or delivery than it does with realizing the poem's nature: it's an animal made ultimately of sound, and only indicated by the text. I'm told that people with a high degree of musical literacy can 'hear' music by reading the notation, and that certain music composition contests, for instance, are judged like this. Imagine a world where this ability prevailed - where I handed you a piece of paper and said, "Have you heard this song?" And you glanced at the paper, scanned it, and said, "Very catchy," or, "Doesn't grab me." It would be a loss, I think, however good our imaginations were, not to have music actually in the air. Not to have a number of us listening to the same thing at the same time. And yet the situation I have just described is what obtains in our poetry. Only the tiniest fraction of our reading is done aloud, and the physicality of sound, the publicity of voice, is the exception.
In principle, this is what we're getting at, reading aloud. In practice, I've been finding this pleasure spoiled by our paraded faults, which, like certain outrageous political statements, seem to reach their full egregiousness in front of other people. This has been said about the work of our time: it is numbingly self-similar, it is wildly divergent, it is transparently confessional, it is willfully opaque, it is haphazard in its free verse, it is lemming-like in its formalism, it is too political, it is apolitical. (I have very seldom seen anyone inquire into why a category like 'confessional' or 'formal' should be
a priori bad, and I'm not sure any of them is.) I would subsume this catalogue of faults--which seems a product of frustration with, and not analysis of, our poverty--under the larger weakness of inelasticity, whose outward sign is the deadening, over-developed sense of self-possession you see at many readings. As without, so within. We exhibit a failure, in all senses, to stretch: in form, in sensibility, in subject, in tone, in voice, in stance, in volume, in topicality. We tend to construe the tradition as an upper bound on possible achievement rather than a lower bound on current expectations.
That's already a sweeping diagnosis--the value of poetry readings may be principally diagnostic--but I will remark specifically on
manner, which I take to be the least noted and most prevalent of these inelasticities. We are, almost uniformly,
seemly. Our verse is becoming. Just as a kind of decorum regulates all verbal and somatic aspects of a sermon, so does a kind of decorum--not necessarily what we understand by 'primness' or 'propriety'--regulate our poetry. It's not that the priest can't be bawdy, tell jokes, or use off-color language: only that he must do so in a down-home way that makes one laugh a certain amount, and no more. It's not that the priest can't hurl invective: only that he must do so in a way that will not drive away the congregation. And so on. The general parameters of the decorum probably come from poets' social classes, but that's not so important. Because decorum, any decorum, is a way of managing expectations, the poetry that adheres to it lacks the means to truly get itself into trouble. There is no more possibility of psychic danger than there is at a tea party. In performance (and I do not necessarily draw attention to 'delivery') it is content on its leash. In contrast, to watch an actor or a dancer take the stage is still, for me, to feel the charge of unexplored affect or movement, to sense that the artist could go in a direction I haven't even detected. I've heard that actors say, 'Never share the stage with a cat,' meaning, the audience's attention follows the most unpredictable thing it can. Artists who live a little closer to the applause can't afford a moment's solipsism.
You might say American poetry takes place in the pulpit of its own readings. It's its own social occasion, with its own understood acceptable conduct. It's an interesting experiment to pick up a recent collection and ask how many pieces in it misbehave in such a way they couldn't be read in church: usually, none. Even when they are indignant or profane, they aren't, really.
There are cheap ways out of this fix, like spectacular sex or violence, and classier ones. I once heard, at a reading in San Francisco, Ginsberg belt full-blast his "New Stanzas for 'Amazing Grace'." Several couples fled the auditorium mid-verse. Gimmicky, but alive. Even a poetry I cannot always rise to, like O'Hara's, I am grateful to find taking place, literally and figuratively, at the diner and the newsstand, not in the pew or the pulpit. Alan Dugan's unapologetic,
outré cantankerousness shows another way out:
Why feel guilty because the death of a lover causes lust?
It is only an animal urge to perpetuate the species,
but if I do not inhibit my imagination and dreams
I can see your skull smiling up at me from underground
and your bones loosely arranged in the missionary position.
This is not an incapacitating vision except at night,
and not a will of constancy, nor an irrevocable trust,
so I take on a woman with a mouth like an open wound.
She is desirable, loving, and definite, but when I feel her up
I hesitate: I still feel the size of your absence. It is
as large as the silence of your invitational smile
or the vacancy open in the cage of your ribs. Fuck that,
I say. Why be guilty for this guilt? It is only birth control.
Turner Cassity's who-else-would-try-this mischief shows another; here he assumes, with the aplomb due a time-honored convention, the voice of a u-boat captain on shore leave in New Orleans. The world-weary and dissipated Odysseus ruminates:
The only major city, one would hope,
Below the level of a periscope.
An air so wet, a sewer-damp so ill,
One had as well be under water still.
The muddy river cakes us, camouflages.
Maddened goats, my crew, go off in barges.
At a distance--I do not refer
To feet and inches--I go too. To err
Defines the deckhands; not to is the Bridge.
Discretion is the sex of privilege.
All of this is outside the box, without really being iconoclasm.
These 'calculated bad manners' by nature dally in the unpalatable. In his essay "The Other Frost," Jarrell marvels at the "conclusively merciless" author of "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep" and "Provide Provide," who hardly seems to come from the same personality as his avuncular, homiletic self. It is all the stranger that such nursery-rhymed darkness would come from an apparent and celebrated centrist (which is why the essay had to be written in the first place):
They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?
The good citizens go about their lives with every limitation we are heir to; Frost says,
Nevertheless. Remarkable, reading that poem, how much sugar we are used to taking with our medicine.
A little fleet-wittedness, even if it often has a class-clownish streak in it, can also keep convention embarrassed and at bay. Auden and Fenton have it, and the British in general seem to have a lock on it. Fenton on God:
A nasty surprise in a sandwich,
A drawing pin caught in your sock,
The limpest of shakes from a hand which
You'd thought would be firm as a rock,
A serious mistake in a nightie,
A grave disappointment all round
Is all that you'll get from th'Almighty,
Is all that you'll get underground.
It's daring you to call it light verse. And what if it were? One reviewer remarks that British poets will put one or two pieces of light verse in their collections as a matter of course, whereas in the US light verse is held in no regard at all. As we seem to enjoy goofiness generally, I don't have a clear idea of why this should be the case. My best guess is that Americans have such a punishing view of themselves as a spiritually bankrupt people, they ask that poetry carry a greater burden of salvation than it has to elsewhere. Poetry is, like,
deep. One overcompensates in private for the failure of the larger culture to grasp tragedy. So tragedy seems to be all we grasp, and lightness becomes a form of blasphemy. Our pieties--in their most strained forms, lugubriousness, sententiousness, and artificial gravity--distance us from that sister literature that still has naturalist ambitions: to look, also, upon what is trite, amusing, insipid, buffoonish, or inconsequential, and call it that.
Lightness, especially, is our loss, both as a pleasure and as a critical toehold. Take Eliot's contribution, which seems to me poor:
So first, your memory I'll jog,
And say: A CAT IS NOT A DOG.
Now dogs pretend they like to fight;
They often bark, more seldom bite;
But yet a Dog is, on the whole,
What you would call a simple soul.
We are pleased to root around in his personal life for faults of priggishness, sexlessness, and compulsive austerity, but in fact he has already published them for us. Serious limitations are showing themselves. The audience on the schooner would have met this (I can say pretty confidently) with a quizzical stare. For better or for worse, he can't fiddle.
I can picture Crane, on the other hand, charming them with a little of the bawdiness he was fond of:
That naughty old Sappho of Greece
Said: "What I prefer to a piece
Is to have my pudenda
Rubbed hard by the enda
The little pink nose of my niece."
It's adolescent, but this adolescence (not his composition) seems to be drawn from the same well as his sublimity. Their common denominator is, I suppose, sensuousness. There is no discontinuity of personality--no one can really be astonished to imagine Crane reciting this. Crane's native instrument is certainly the violin; but he has no particular disdain for the fiddle.
My strict point is that watching performance offers insight into convention, in the same sense that watching ceremony offers insight into manners.
I may have the cart before the horse, but I have the accumulating sense that the limited public lives we do have frustrate valuable kinds of misbehavior--misbehavior that appears to poetry's credit, and sometimes to our general entertainment, in the weirder recesses of writers' oeuvres.
We tend to think of popularity as being hostile to artistic achievement, but obscurity has another set of problems. I saw a documentary recently about black modern dance choreographers in New York. The story reaches the late seventies: some choreographers are breaking good ground, but the scene has become inbred; everybody knows everybody, and production has fallen into a routine of grant applications and performances at which the same twelve people always show up (sound familiar?). In the eighties, break dancing appears,
sui generis, on the city streets. Groups congregate with nothing more than a boom box and a sheet of cardboard to hash out the moves, which are splendid. The professionals, who thought themselves the tastemakers, are mortified. I paraphrase an interview: "Every choreographer in New York looked out his window and said,
I worry that an Oh shit moment is lying in wait for poetry--or, worse, has come and gone without our noticing. What form would it take? Poetry slams? I go to one, half-hoping to feel outdone so I'll at least know what direction threats to the art are coming from. I am impressed, if not ultimately threatened: the room is packed, attentive, and responsive, and the performers are, in the more talented cases, genuinely riveting. Their histrionics have a well-rehearsed spontaneity to them, so that when "you turn my fingers to rivers," the fingers ripple dexterously, and when "your hair is like a question mark," a graceful curve is traced in the air for us. They don't trust the words to do the work: narrated actions--reading a map, shooting tequila--are mimed if possible. One slammer pretends to forget his lines, then picks them up again, giving us all a jolt. Personalities lean towards the bohemian, but at least one college student gets mileage out of mocking his own squareness. They all evidently feel some power in the words, and although as poetry their writing is conventional, they are not quite riding parasitically on some high-culture notion of Poetry. Their relationship to Milton is Mick Jagger's to Haydn: admiring, maybe, but at such a remove of idiom as to be sterile. They are fiddling.
I pay some more attention to the writing, and how it might work or fail on the page. The aesthetics are smash-and-grab: relentless anaphora, declarative sentences, and rhyme if it draws attention to its own cheesiness ("I bought a book by Sylvia Plath / and dropped it in the bath"). Syntax is generally natural and conservative, with no fragments you wouldn't hear in ordinary conversation. The poetics' highest virtues seem to be the killer simile, moral indignation, and sexual candor, and indeed nine-tenths of the performances have erotic/romantic subjects or are feminist narratives about things like trying out for the boys' hockey team. It is much less structured than rap is--there is no verse-chorus pattern, and the speech has a staccato, unmetered quality, as if too much flow would disrupt the illusion of improvisation.
If I should feel the heat of competition, if I should feel that ordinary, frumpy, page-bound poetry is having its thunder stolen, I don't, and it's not entirely clear why. Where does the analogy
modern : break :: reading : slam fail? Maybe it's that much of the slam's textual aspect seems conventional, whereas break dancing doesn't. If there is an
Oh shit moment to be had, it may be with respect to rap--which is also conventional, but which follows conventions, like heroic couplets, that most working poets have no commerce with, so they seem fresher than they are. One age's violin is another's fiddle; while writers today are aflutter with the $100 million gift to
Poetry, rap recordings will gross fifteen times that this year alone.
I am inclined to think our readings would be objectively better if the readers knew beforehand that ten thousand people would be watching. You have to think some additional care would be taken;
we might go so far as to rehearse, memorize our pieces.
On April 13, 1919, troops under the command of one Brigadier General Reginald Dyer opened fire on a protest at Jallianwallah Bagh in Amritsar, killing nearly four hundred people and wounding about three times that many. There had been civil unrest in the Punjab following the British extension of some restrictive wartime legislation, but the crowd at Jallianwallah Bagh was unarmed (or at any rate had no firearms) and peacefully assembled. Dyer's troops covered the park's only exit, and did not stop firing until left with a nominal amount of ammunition to cover their march back to the barracks.
The Army's immediate response was to promote Dyer to major general, retire him, and place him on the inactive list. This sparked some outrage in England, where this was regarded as immoderate censure, and there was considerable public opinion on his side: sums of money were collected on his behalf, the House of Lords passed a measure commending him, and Conservative MPs forced a full debate in which, they hoped, Dyer's reputation would be cleared. Edwin Montagu, secretary of state for India, opened for the government, and Winston Churchill was to close.
Things did not go well initially. From William Manchester's book on Churchill:
Montagu's speech was a calamity. He was a Jew and there were anti-Semites in the House. He had been warned to be quiet and judicial. Instead, he was sarcastic; he called Dyer a terrorist; he worried about foreign opinion; he 'thoroughly roused most of the latent passions of the stogy Tories,' as one MP noted, and 'got excited...and became more racial and more Yiddish in screaming tone and gesture' with the consequence that 'a strong anti-Jewish sentiment was shown by shouts...Altogether it was a very astonishing exhibition of anti-Jewish feeling.' The Ulster MPs had decided to vote against Dyer. After Montagu's speech they conferred and reversed themselves.
Sir Carson spoke in the general's defense: "I say to break a man under the circumstances of the case is un-English"--'un-English' being, among other things, a dig at Montagu. Such was the atmosphere in the House when Churchill's turn to speak came around. Churchill resisted the temptation to strong-arm his listeners with moral suasion, and instead led them down the primrose path of their own sense of virtue. We ought not take umbrage, for instance, that proceedings have been initiated against an officer in good standing, since
The procedure is well understood. It is hardly ever challenged. It is not challenged by General Dyer in his statement. It is accepted with soldierly fortitude, because it is believed, on the whole, that the administration of these great responsibilities is carried out in a fair and honest spirit. Indeed, when one thinks of the hundreds of officers of high rank who, in the last year, have had their professional careers brought abruptly and finally to a close, and the patience, good temper and dignity with which this great personal misfortune has been borne, one cannot help feeling a great admiration for the profession of arms to which those officers belong.
The implication is that Dyer's censure is a credit, and not a dishonor, to his profession. Churchill recounts the events of the day of the massacre, deftly concretizing the dead by identifying them, casually, with the crowd before him:
Finally, when the ammunition had reached the point that only enough remained to allow for the safe return of the troops, and after 379 persons, which is about the number gathered together in this Chamber to-day, had been killed, and when most certainly 1,200 or more had been wounded, the troops, at whom not even a stone had been thrown, swung round and marched away.
Dyer's actions look less and less like policing and more and more like cowardice. Having established his essential detachment, though, Churchill then makes his superlative moral pronouncement:
I mean the slaughter of nearly 400 persons and the wounding of probably three to four times as many, at the Jallian Wallah Bagh on 13th April. That is an episode which appears to me to be without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire. It is an event of an entirely different order from any of those tragical occurrences which take place when troops are brought into collision with the civil population. It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.
Nevertheless he understands that the monstrosity of the event is not what will indict Dyer; it is the contempt of his peers. Hence Dyer's methods are simply "not the British way of doing business," and the ethnocentrism deployed staunchly in Dyer's defense can be made to turn against him. Folk pride is evidently a stronger rhetorical device than messianic moralizing.
Our reign in India or anywhere else has never stood on the basis of physical force alone, and it would be fatal to the British Empire if we were to try to base ourselves only upon it. The British way of doing things, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for India, who feels intensely upon this subject, has pointed out, has always meant and implied close and effectual co-operation with the people of the country.
Churchill is careful to be self-conscious about his grounds for attacking Dyer, and does not take it as a matter of course that he has the authority to pass judgment on his actions: Dyer, like many officers before him, was in an acutely trying position, and it is presumptuous of him to lay out the guidelines of his conduct. However:
There is surely one general prohibition which we can make. I mean a prohibition against what is called "frightfulness." What I mean by frightfulness is the inflicting of great slaughter or massacre upon a particular crowd of people, with the intention of terrorising not merely the rest of the crowd, but the whole district or the whole country.
The word choice is sly: what he means is "terrorizing," or "reprisal," or "punitive action," but he chooses "frightfulness," which sounds an awful lot like the tendency to be frightened: that is, cowardice. The crowning stroke: "Frightfulness is not a remedy known to the British pharmacopoeia."
After five more hours of debate the parliament voted 247 to 37 for the government; Dyer was an official pariah. This real-life Marc Antony act certainly represents a
tour de force of public speaking, and one can marvel at Churchill's ability to make his point, almost extemporaneously, shrugging off the shouts, heckles, and interruptions. What is more astonishing, though, is that,
as an act of persuasion, it works, and as such it does not reflect the genius of the speaker so much as the genius of the tribe's entire verbal apparatus. In other words, I am less impressed that Churchill was able to give the speech than I am that 247 people had enough receptivity to be convinced by it. When I read the speech, how little it sounds, even potentially, like anyone I know; I know many people who can write this level of prose, but they don't bother to speak in that register because, quite simply, there's no point. No one would buy it. It's not just a matter of off-putting fifty-cent words (hell will freeze over before someone says "pharmacopoeia" in the House of Representatives), but of a deeper quality, a culturally variable quality, of relationship to language: the directness of the connection between the ear and the will.
If I had seen Churchill's speech dramatized in a film, I would have dismissed it as wishful screenwriting. Confronted with its historical actuality, I find I have to apologize to certain scenes in Shakespeare that have always struck me as implausible, even hokey. Antony's speech is a mild example. Early in
Richard III Anne is mourning over the body of Henry the Sixth, her father-in-law; Gloucester, who is the admitted murderer of both Henry and Anne's husband Edward, takes the opportunity to, of all things, flirt with her:
Anne: Didst thou not kill this king?
I grant ye.
Anne: Dost grant me, hedgehog? then, God grant me too
Thou mayst be damned for that wicked deed!
O, he was gentle, mild, and virtuous!
Gloucester: The fitter for the King of heaven, that hath him.
Anne: He is in heaven, where thou shalt never come.
Gloucester: Let him thank me, that holp to send him thither;
For he was fitter for that place than earth.
Anne: And thou unfit for any place but hell.
Gloucester: Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it.
Anne: Some dungeon.
Anne: Ill rest betide the chamber where thou liest!
Gloucester: So will it, madam, till I lie with you.
Anne: I hope so.
They continue to spar, with no indication she is softening. Gloucester then gets a short speech: Anne's beauty has succeeded in drawing his tears, as well as "sweet smoothing words," where his career of strife has failed. Now
Gloucester: …thy beauty is proposed my fee,
My proud heart sues, and prompts my tongue to speak.
[She looks scornfully at him
Teach not thy lips such scorn, for they were made
For kissing, lady, not for such contempt.
If thy revengeful heart cannot forgive,
Lo, here I lend thee this sharp-pointed sword;
Which if thou please to hide in this true bosom,
And let the soul forth that adoreth thee,
I lay it naked to the deadly stroke,
And humbly beg the death upon my knee.
[He lays his breast open: she offers at it with his sword
Nay, do not pause; for I did kill King Henry,
But 'twas thy beauty that provoked me.
Nay, now dispatch; 'twas I that stabb'd young Edward,
But 'twas thy heavenly face that set me on.
[Here she lets fall the sword
Take up the sword again, or take up me.
Gloucester invites her to stab him under the pretense of letting "the soul forth that adoreth thee," so whether or not she accepts the invitation her actions have an elements of both scorn and warmth. The simultaneous presence of the two emotions is the bridge that leads, by the end of the scene, to the preponderance of the latter. She quails with the sword; he offers her his ring; she accepts it, and leaves. Gloucester gloats:
Gloucester: What! I, that kill'd her husband and his father,
To take her in her heart's extremest hate,
With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,
The bleeding witness of her hatred by;
Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,
And I nothing to back my suit at all,
But the plain devil and dissembling looks,
And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!
Shakespeare knows the outcome to be improbable, but to me it seems utterly implausible--it just doesn't jibe with how I've seen humans act. Reading of the response to Churchill's speech, though, it begins to make more sense: Anne's reaction seems outrageous because it takes place in a culture with a much tighter relationship to language, and there is a potential for persuasion that simply doesn't exist in my neck of the woods. The quality is evidently tribal. The British show it; I've heard it expressed, in different ways, in the speech of Irish (how else the literature?), East Africans (a great formal dash), Indians (a joy in nicknaming, singsong, the atomic stuff of poetry), French (a clinical quality, strangely expressive), and, within the US, of Southerners (a delight in the baroquely figurative) and Westerners (a quiet wit). The list says more about my own exposure than anything else; but a semantic attitude, like the cuisine's spiciness or the clothing's comfortableness, is part of the tribe's heritage, and because it inheres in the spoken-to as much as the speaker, it has something ultimate to say about the terms of a poet's public life. With respect to the public lives of poets working in Blue Zone America, the news is grim: like English chefs, Jamaican bobsledders, and Yugoslavian carmakers, we start at a disadvantage, and have our work cut out for us.
It is true that American history has examples of fine oratory, but it is remarkable, when placed next to a speech like Churchill's or Gloucester's, how rigid and disengaged they sound. Their goal seems not to entreat a living listener, but to achieve a level of expression that will guarantee their own appearance on a block of marble. (When Kennedy says "ask not what your country can do for you," one senses that the desire to deliver a memorable line is as strong as the desire to effect change in our civic behavior.) The state of affairs is consistent with a rich private linguistic life and a poor public one. We're not listening; posterity is.
I'm not sure what role, in my utopia, the poet would play in public, though I've come close to arguing here that poets should take the immediate delight, surprise, and bewilderment of their audiences (not to mention size) as
some indication of success or failure. It is tempting to say that our underdeveloped public lives have left us without a kind of feedback that is second nature to performing artists. It is tempting to say the limited public lives we do have have encouraged habits of subcultural conformism. It is tempting to say we have made a false gospel of the violin and underrated the fiddle. These things are probably true. But to insist on any value at all for poetry is to insist on the sanctity of its composition, which transpires in a state of actual or effective privacy. The poem is the cession of that privacy. So there is a sense in which to talk about what goes on after that cession is to talk about a secondary theater--the greater drama has taken place elsewhere, and we are left with the written remnants: a paper-bound animal that cannot venture into the wild, and so exists by the sufferance of dedicated caretakers, 'in the valley of its saying.' It is painful to contemplate even the limited sellout of one among the last human activities beset with an excess of integrity, and yet there is a writerly imperative, almost as strong as the drive for quality, to cross-breed this animal with some wild cousin, to serve the need that surfaced on the schooner that September evening, and that I found myself helpless to respond to.