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Timely 3: What I learn(ed) from Matt Rohrer
When I emailed a bunch of poets asking them to respond to my timely/timeless question Matt Rohrer was the first to respond. He wrote:
“Well I guess I wish they could be both. Is that possible? I want to think that there is a way to be timely that is actually what being “timeless” means. To write “news that stays news”. When I think of the “timeless” poems that I return to over and over again — Tu Fu, Wang Wei, Basho, Issa, Sappho mostly — I think what works in them is the sense that they are real human beings writing with absolute focus on what it means to be alive — and for them, that can only mean right then. The names of the emperors or their friends who are ministers have become meaningless, but not their close observations of the world around them. I think it is that intense, close-up look at the timely aspect of their lives that makes them timeless to us now. As I’m saying this it seems to be the least original idea I’ve had in a long time, but still…. And the caveat is that the poem can’t MERELY be timely — like an extended inside joke about Ke$ha that doesn’t also offer the reader (or a potential future reader) something beyond the surface. A much less ancient example is the Romantics. Shelley’s verse plays (ugh!) and his philosophizing aren’t interesting to me, but he’s one of my favorites because of the other things he does, particularly in his beautiful EVENING, PONTE AL MARE, PISA poem “The sun is set, the swallows are asleep, the bats are flitting fast through grey air. The slow soft toads out of damp corners creep and evening’s breath, wandering here and there over the quivering surface of the stream, wakes not one ripple from its summer dream…. etc.” And Clare. There’s nothing about his experience of rural England that applies now to me or even to English people anymore, but some of those poems are timeless if anything is. So that’s my predictable and not that original idea: that only a very timely poem can become timeless. And that, yes, that’s what I want my poems to do.”
I smiled when I got his response because I think that is what his poems do.
A few weeks ago I spent a week at Virginia Colony of the Creative Arts. Among other books, I read Matt Rohrer’s new book, Destroyer and Preserver.
Destroyer and Preserver brought me into its world. Virginia disappeared and I was in Brooklyn or in Paris or wherever the poems took place. And it wasn’t so much a description of place but, rather, a feeling of taking place or happening, that I was with a human being as time passed.
Last week, when Deborah Landau, director of NYU’s creative writing program introduced Rohrer at a reading, she said that his book was “good company.” I agree. Reading it was pleasurable. The language was engaging and surprising and there were some exciting formal experiments. What I liked the most, though, was the sense I had that I was with Rohrer, that the world he describes is “real,” that he is a likeable speaker, pleasant to be around—that’s how I feel when I read James Schuyler. I don’t mean to suggest that Rohrer’s poems don’t ask important questions—they do. “Like given/ the choice to do something/ stupid or sit in a chair/ everyone leaps up/ with their eyes ablaze…” he writes in “Wu Wei.” Part of what I find moving about lines like these in the midst of these poems is that I really, truly believe they are the thoughts and words of real people and not a performance. Of course, I know that all poetry is a performance, but I think the realness of these poems has to do with aiming for a poetry that is timely, with not being afraid to write quickly (as I know Rohrer is willing to do), with being yourself in the poems. The book broke something open for me and I started to work in a different way. It gave me permission to be timely and not worry about the rest. Whether my new poems will last (even in my own estimation) remains to be seen (“only time will tell”?) but I am grateful for Rohrer’s response to my question and for his book and the permission it gave me.