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Journal, Day Three
POETRY JOURNAL, DAY THREE: “IT’S ALWAYS THE POETS WHO FALL IN THE RIVER”
At the Writers Festival in South Korea we visit a Confucian monastery. It’s a five hours train ride, south from Seoul. Evening has settled by the time we get there and a tent has been set up with tables for dinner. Soju circles around in green bottles and shot glasses, and soon the chatter grows louder, our digital photos, streakier. The Romanian poet ends a garbled but brilliant story about Count Dracula’s castle, and lumbers into the night to find the toilet. A long time afterwards, he shuffles back in, clutching his ribs, and slogs one arm around me. He’s soaking. In a groaned whisper: “Peter, please help me, I… have… fallen in the river.” The next morning as the story snakes its way around the breakfast tables, the chic young British poet gazes up from beneath her straw hat: “I’ve been on a few of these writers’ junkets. And it’s always the poets who fall in the river.”
Consciousness and time, most often, move at very different speeds. The urge behind the familiar injunction to “live in the present” collides with other, usually stronger ones. There’s the need to imagine backwards, to locate reality in some pleasure dome of past experience. Its twin is the desire to poke at old bruises, to see the deepest truth as past trauma, personal wounds that our lives stem from. And then there’s that yearning for the future, for escape into some high noon of experience. All of these can be wrong, I guess, and they can all be valid. Something that good poems do is, if not to reconcile these forces, at least to set them in interesting relation, at least for the time of the poem. This seems particularly true of poems that respond to “the experience of modernity.” In Don DeLillo’s Mao II, the recluse novelist Bill Gray gives this idea severe turn. He speaks into the answering machine of Brita, the photographer who has just captured his image, and with whom he’s becoming enthralled: “The machine makes everything a message,” he says, “which narrows the range of discourse and destroys the poetry of nobody home. Home is a failed idea. People are no longer home or not home. They’re either picking up or not picking up.”
The famous poetry scholar (if there can be such a thing) ends up in the same row as us on the flight to the conference. Thankfully, he spends the short ride not talking, but shuffling the papers to which he’s supposed to respond. Around the time the pilot announces “our initial descent,” the scholar looks up from the printouts, elated, and proclaims with the perfect sincerity he would never value in a poem: “At last! I’ve figured out how to make it all about me!”
In Terry St. John’s studio in Oakland he showed me a shoe box stacked with the Polaroids he uses to track the progress of his paintings. It was staggering to see those forms of his, those forms that have such sculptural heft, such a solid impress of labor, moving. Sometimes whole figures, large as life, shifted across the canvases. I remember the odd shock of it, the enabling thought that this is what a master does too: he wakes up each morning and enters his uncertainty.
Yesterday morning, at the beginning of “Modernist Poetry,” a student cuts right to the chase and asks the crucial question. “Even when Yeats resisted the public,” she says, “he still saw himself at the center of Irish culture and politics. But these days things are so different. What could the role of the poet be now?” I spiral into my spiel about how the poet goes underground, how poetry has a long half life, how so many “classic” poets we read now were obscure during their time. Somehow my practiced response feels like evasion. So I’m surprised at what happens next. Another student raises her hand. She tells about reading Adrienne Rich. She’s convinced that poetry does have power in public. And the rest of the class seems to agree. Suddenly I’m turned around: instead of tempering the students’ skepticism, I’m now faced with the task of addressing their ideals. Incredible: they trust art.
The papier mache we used as kids to make animal masks. Those slippery bands. What consciousness is like, when it not only cuts through experience but pulls it in, sculpting forms in the mind. Ply on ply, attempting to neaten the shapes, sluicing the moisture away between pinched fingers: the effort itself becomes the ridged and buckled surface of the whole.