Mickey Rourke and the Bluebird of Happiness: A Notebook

On music, myth, and shapely speech.

by W. S. Di Piero

Why the scenic in poetry matters: it tells the world (like telling a story) by saying how it looks, tastes, moves, smells. Tell the world well, even if it’s an unhappy telling, and you reveal the invisible life of things.

You want a truly fresh expressiveness, a musicality of words that are also rich with statement. You want to get life in language, get its 
sensations flooding the instant of the voiced phrase. But is that even possible? More and more it’s as if a veil or smudged glass separates you from whatever is there, the life that is in life. And the veil is made of words. It’s the words themselves that obstruct you from finding the poetry. If the membrane is made of words, break through words!

Certain sounds create a wrap of apparent silence. Windows creaking, wind squeaking through cracks somewhere, the back-and-forth thrashing of treetops that sounds so much like No No No that I’m convinced I’m hearing them say something with their marvelous 
silence.

François Louis, inventor of the aulochrome, a double soprano sax: “Sound is always the vehicle of emotion, your inside is there in your sound.” And Mingus said finding your sound involves imitating somebody else’s then being able to conjure up the entire history of the instrument.

If poets are artists, really, authenticity and artifice are a single act of the imagination.

We’ve been for so long a sick-at-soul country which, like a child trying to convince adults by shouting the same phrase over and over, boasts our spiritual good health, our moral hygiene. How scrupulous we are, especially around election time, about our “moral state.” We’re self-serving, hypocritical, conflicted, and tirelessly self-
celebratory. (God damn Whitman.)

What can that critic mean who says I am “descriptive not redemptive”? What’s the difference? Deliverance? Should poetry deliver us from physical reality? Not if spirit, the non-material vivaciousness of existence, is physical reality.

Empty heart = empty head.

Practice makes perfect. Revision is a poet’s practice, as musicians practice hours a day, reiterating sounds of those who have come 
before and been internalized, while also testing unknown chord changes, tempi, combinations, etc. while playing (as a child plays in a sandbox) over and over the sound one knows. Practice makes 
imperfect.

From the air New York’s skyline looks jerry-built, improvised, as much draped raggedly from the atmospheres as it is built up. 
I always expect to see rope bridges impulsively thrown across the nearly perfectly calipered gaps across streets. Chicago’s looks modeled, fashioned, carved, as if a hand has just finished its work and gone home — it looks like an artisanal studio or shop. San Francisco’s is confectionary, with fanciful and frivolous irregularities, spires, angularities, and pitches lifting and dropping structures as if the ground had been bunched like a rug and left that way: architects love the challenge of matching structure to pitch. All three cities are money stacked different ways.

Does poetry follow the shape of the times, the energies and valuations? Pound’s Cantos is knowledge-heavy. Too heavy. Our own information-driven culture is companioned by a poetry that’s 
information-heavy, and data isn’t knowledge, which is driven by imagination, not by archival busyness. People talk about poems as if they were cleverly designed, efficient data centers or delivery systems. The musical and the mythy may be effectively gone for good.

One of the offices of poetry: to use shapely speech to express the radicals of existence in all their ambiguity. To answer idiosyncratically, privately, to a public world given over to falsehood, fake facts, scuzzy rumor, casual murderousness, comedic denials, manic impromptu wind-tunnel ideologies. To answer palsied language with vital language, plasticity, gaiety of invention and fabulation, against 
opportunistic mendacity. If poetry can’t, or chooses not to, reveal what it feels like to live as a sentient being in a perilous enchanted world, then maybe it can (and deserves to) die. Or that mission will be replaced by a spectacular dumb show loaded with content, whipped up drama, and “language.” It will be a polymer mold of  what once was primary material. What can replace the completeness and 
immediacy of feeling that the sounds of words whip up or lay down?

Memo to literary high society, to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Academy of American Poets, the Percy Dovetonsils Poetry Institute, the Mickey Rourke Poetry Society, et alia: Ruskin says in The Stones of Venice that an artist “should be fit for the best society, and should keep out of it.”

Freddie Hubbard died. Writers can internalize unawares a musician’s sound and model their own on it, that other sonority. Hubbard’s fat, probing emotional range, his throaty melancholy, could mercilessly elide pity to sweetness to oh-well-fuck-it-ness.

Morning consciousness = a butterfly in flames.

This terrifying silence of recognizing — it occurs in an instant — the irrelevance of everything: it imposes silence on us and squats, comic-ugly, in the untended garden. It shouldn’t be such a task to live in the present conscious of   futureness.

What’s wrong with a little terribilità now and again? Poetry says, or should say (though not all the time, please) things readers prefer not to hear spoken. It keeps us alert. Poets as spoilers, not pacifiers, saying things unfit for polite company.

From my broken 1963 paperback of Portrait of the Artist, Daedalus pronouncing Aquinas: “Ad pulcritudinem tria requiruntur integritas, consonantia, claritas.” Three things are needed for beauty: wholeness, harmony, and radiance. Update: Three things: “Fragmentation, dissonance, darkness.” Those get welded to the others. Consequence: “Completed mixed feeling, chromatic coherence, mysterious aura.”

It’s Friday the 13th and the bluebird of  happiness alights. (It just 
arrives, you can’t call or catch it.) A scene in The Pope of Greenwich Village: Mickey Rourke playing stickball on a lot with his cronies, dressed to kill — shades, white on black loafers, suit and tie: he snaps his fingers and rocks side to side to Sinatra’s “Summer Wind.” The perfect moment, the visitation, and suddenly all’s right. (Who knew?)

Craving too much a simplicity and plainness of mind I’ve never 
known. To break the circuit of how I perceive and live out my 
perception of the things of the world (and my work and me). A conversation with my Buddhist friend S., who reminds me that no such circuit really exists, neither does the reality that generates it. All’s illusion, Herr Filosof. But how arrive at that condition of mind, that mentality? Me? A William James flesh-and-nerve-ends poet? An unreality, but maybe the only way to live in the world and not be hostage to the world’s contingencies and mechanics. How to begin in world fatigue and work to conceive and think outside delusional, self-enhancing habits of thought?

“It is a curious thing, do you know,” Cranly said dispassionately, “how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.”

How rely on the necessary patterns that sustain a style and at the same time remain free of them? The question tosses me into another time, when I believed with a young man’s fervor Giacometti’s principles: “Nothing is ever finished.” “Everything fails.” Is there any better place to start then or now?

When does drivenness become, without our knowing, a numbing habit? Something safe?

Poets aren’t even aware of their astonishment in the presence of reality until they’ve written out the astonishment.

The poet, unawares, quivers with awareness of the past, the actual, and the always, experienced as one moment of the soul.

Poetry is a condition, a quality or quiddity of experience — Ali’s style as “poetry in motion”; the poetry of a dingy Atlantic City beach; wind beating among trees; Mickey Rourke snapping his fingers — but the poetry that’s a human product made in lines and sentences 
appears as argument, beseeching, moans, invocations, gossip, street obscenities    ...    sometimes the writing of it creates misrule in the 
diurnal turn. Days and nights become conjecture in consciousness. You want to compound anything — valium, vicodin, and vodka do a doozy dance — in order to slow or narcotize the unconscious, to provide relief from the relentless, visually haranguing phantasmagoria 
that is the wraparound world of the dream-life. One night last week I slept three hours then woke to that other poetry: full moon, platinum-yellow in my window, the window-frame shadows carving up my kitchen floor. Another evening, during a run of rain-hammered 
days, at sunset a glacial cloud looked pushed up by the horizon line. Albert Pinkham Ryder, Prospero, Odysseus waking on Nausicaa’s beach — these and the sunset and the platinum moon become one unwinding pulsing line of my feeling for existence, its time 
signature.

I go for long passages when the involuntary circulatory action of 
existence, the mechanics of it, run down and feel about to stop. That’s when the cliches run me down: Time Is Running Out. The Clock, She Is Ticking. Make Hay While the Shoe Shines. An obtuse 
reviewer says (of me) that poets traditionally get the blues, so what’s the big deal? The blues is the blues. Yes, indeed. And it’s a drifty weariness, a slowing of wanting to make the effort of wanting to stay alive, stay in motion    ...    How extravagant! To make my residence close to the membrane between here and there, somethingness and nothingness, oh, such ease and comfort in despair. That becomes the short-roll player-piano tune that loops in consciousness. Try to 
escape it. I dare you.

Cue oboes and bassoons! Hecklers, cue kazoos!

Easter was the only feast day (though there wasn’t much festing 
involved) that mattered to me as a boy. I didn’t know then, but it’s because it was Resurrection Time. Initiation, ritualized annually, 
which is the Christian version of recurring rebirth, restoration of the puny self to the universe and the deity that the universe is. As I got older, that jump of unreason to belief and faith — trapeze 
artistry, was it? Or some kind of derangement? Shestov says it’s absolutely an act of unreason — was hammered so constantly by the stolid stubborn adherence to the irrational in my culture that I began to need things to answer to reason, deliberation, sense: that eventually kills one’s feeling for the sacred in daily life. Easter still matters, but as a recurrent energy of emergence detached completely from the thought or imaging in mind of  Jesus’s intervention in history. That’s 
shriveled and puny. It needs to be more than cultural opportunism, or random colonizing by a depleted and desiccated and barren western 
consciousness. The New Jerusalem is Mind, it’s the still mysterious operations of the brain.

The tender, liquid beauty of clothes drying on a line, the wind 
blowing through them.

The beauty of those who live the garments, who fill them, so 
bonded to their own absence.

In my Hart Crane dream he’s dressed like a dashing fifties movie star — wool suit, necktie, white shirt. Hovering in the air of the dream, not a voice quite, but a meaning somehow voiced by the dream atmosphere: “Get the sound right, don’t worry about obscurity, don’t worry about being understood.”

Originally Published: February 1, 2013

COMMENTS (1)

On February 3, 2013 at 3:00pm DAVID A WELCH wrote:
"Easter still matters, but as a recurrent energy of
emergence detached completely from the thought or
imaging in mind of  Jesus’s intervention in history.
That’s 
shriveled and puny. It needs to be more than
cultural opportunism, or random colonizing by a depleted
and desiccated and barren western 
consciousness. The New
Jerusalem is Mind, it’s the still mysterious operations
of the brain."

Boring. Who would sacrifice everything for the
mysterious operations of the brain? Who would lay down
their life for THAT shriveled and puny thing? Who ever
has and who ever will?

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This prose originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Poetry magazine

February 2013

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 W. S. Di Piero

Biography

W.S. Di Piero was born in 1945 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and earned degrees from St. Joseph’s College and San Francisco State College. A poet, essayist, art critic, and translator, Di Piero has taught at institutions such as Northwestern University, Louisiana State University, and Stanford, where he is professor emeritus of English and on faculty in the prestigious Stegner Poetry Workshop. Elected to the American Academy of . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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