When I was a child, my father told me, “Be anything you want to be.” Then he thought about it some more and added, “Except a poet. Don’t be a poet.”
Years later, my children’s father told them, unprompted, “Be anything you want; just don’t be a cop.”
Maybe it’s fathers.
There’s nothing novel about my own road to poetry. Girl crush, college professor. At Stanford in the early eighties Diane Middlebrook fed us Wallace Stevens, Adrienne Rich, T.S. Eliot, James Merrill as the books that would become his The Changing Light at Sandover were being released. Don’t laugh when I say this, but it electrified my soul. Poetry was mind and heart and sex all bound up together, and when I quit school I wanted more of it.
It didn’t hurt to live in San Francisco. The language poets and their pals had those great informal gatherings in people’s living rooms, and anyone was welcome to listen in. I found Beverly Dahlen’s long A Reading and stalked her to declare my admiration for that work. I stumbled upon that beautiful enterprise, Ironwood, which charted a path backward to Black Mountain, Olson, Duncan, Creeley. Lorine Niedecker, who made rent scrubbing floors (I was working construction) and assembled explosives in her spare time. Reading Adrienne Rich led me to Audre Lorde, Olga Broumas to Odysseus Elytis, Robert Hass to Basho—Issa—Buson. I found Lorca; how could I not? Neruda. Nina Cassian. And back via Susan Howe to Emily Dickinson, whom I’d studiously avoided until I had a dream that told me to read everything—everything—in print by her, and I did. I met Pat Parker in a bar and told her that and she smiled. And pointed me toward others.
There were things going on. Living in San Francisco in the eighties meant bearing witness to the raging, no-end-in-sight shitstorm of AIDS. I was banging nails all day, building houses for other people, and by night pursuing my own personal adventures in love and romance. Also I was writing. Always. And in spite of how deeply I loved and admired and was inspired by the prodigious gifts of poetry, when I sat down to write, it was stories I was driven to tell; sentences, not lines, that organized my thoughts and captured the rhythms and muscularity and erratic flow of my body.
I didn’t want to study narrative. I wanted to go at that like a blind mole nosing its way through tunnels, guided by smell, by the rough rub of my shoulders against the walls. I wanted no external rules or arcana to interfere with that process. So I studied poetry, instead, the way others take Ritalin, to satisfy and occupy that overactive part of my brain and keep it from interfering with the writing work I knew I needed to blunder through. I taught myself to scan, to identify formal structures, to recognize the different ways meaning might arise from the smoke of syllables. Poetry invited me to pay close attention to sound patterns and semantic resonance at the level of the syllable, the word, the line, and the whole. I learned to watch exceptionally skillful poets like I watched professional hockey players: Are you allowed to do that? Engaging with poetry made me more comfortable when things took a sudden turn, a swerve from the discursive. I was at home in the associative, I realized—the quick slide and what followed in its idiosyncratic but inexorable logic.
Through it all I wrote stories. Stories that had nothing to do with poetry.
Nothing except breath and association and echo and pattern and nuance and daring.
Nothing except everything.
Grace Paley said, Memorize poems so when you find yourself in jail you will have something to share with the others.
And by jail, she meant life.
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota…
It is the thirtieth of May, the thirtieth of November…
And the end of all our exploring will be to …
That startling kick to the gut. All your insides spill out.
It could have been any color but it was red.
The ground you walk on.
I know a story I can tell
Five or six days into my first ten day silent meditation retreat, the poems I had memorized so many years before arose, complete and intact, though I’d not been able to access them for years—no more than a line here, a line there. So poetry remains somewhere inside, pulling the strings, operating the marionette. Along with all those things I wish I’d said and never voiced, never could get out.
Thirty years thick into the joys and intricacies of writing fiction, it’s hard not to get tweaked by the one-upmanship of poets who assert the virtues of poetry over prose. (The burden-of-description crowd—Billy Collins, W.S. Merwin: I love you, but lay off that stupid shit.) Central to the best fiction is that same shimmering opacity that wallops me in the best poetry, something irreducible and very nearly unfathomable, some essential truth to being human. The friction of interaction (characters, plot—by which I mean things happen, by which I mean desire manifests in its sparkling and horrifying multiplicity) is the sphere to which my own particular vision returns again and again. Like the poet, the fiction writer charts the movement of energy. There is no abstract emotion. You don’t demonstrate anything; you don’t manipulate the characters, as I heard one writer disparage the process. You let it ripen on the page, whole, real, unfathomable, the slam. There are many ways poets could be well served by a deep immersion in the dynamics of the sentence, the scene, the story—and plenty who are, and whose work reflects the value of that intersection. There’s room for all that, and more.
But that’s a digression. Here’s what I want to say: Each arresting poem I read puts me deeper in debt to you poets, grateful for your courage, your integrity, the drenching and peculiar beauty of your work. A good poem can bail me out of jail, break the plodding lockstep prose can settle into. I need poetry to remind me of the flexibility of the sentence—line breaks subsumed into the breath patterns the sentence asserts. Balm or knife to the heart, goad to the conscience, call to arms or call to bed, your poems tune my ear to sound, alert my eye to the image. You call out the visible, yes, but also the invisible, and the unsaid. With you I revel in the virtues of compression, of economy. And with some there is this, too: the wanton pleasure of sprawling volubility. Sometimes my stories adopt so dedicated a cadence they very nearly scan, and I’m reminded of the ancestral connection, the sung epic. Pound and the troubadours, or here and now: the young man striding down the street in New Orleans, his skin dark and luminous and his face fierce with the poem he is practicing aloud. It weaves its way through everything, a rumble of words no other could say. I step out of his path so he might have free passage and stay anchored in the privacy of his poem, his thought and heartbeat made audible, brought outside of himself.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
My neighbor in New Orleans, artist/activist Mags Coble, confesses in her street art that “Last Night a Brass Band Saved My Life.” The people who live here know exactly what she means.
Poets will know what I mean when I say the same thing about poetry.
My father is writing poems, now.
Dedicated to the memory of Diane Wood Middlebrook.