So you write him a letter and say, “Her eyes are blue.”
He sends you a poem and she’s lost to you.
Little green, he’s a non-conformer.
— Joni Mitchell
What ever happened to nonconformism? It must have gone the way of flower power and the sit-in. So Joni Mitchell’s lyrics from “Little Green,” on her 1971 album Blue, may read like a reliquary. In them, the singer laments that her absent lover (and the father of her child) is both a poet and a “non-conformer.” Her description may seem quaint or superannuated. But the relationship between poetry and conformism, or the related question of poetry’s status as a nonconformist art, still resonates. To what degree is a poet defined by social or political groups of other people — whether other poets or just others? And to what degree must the poet be — or should the poet want to be — “the only kangaroo among the beauty”?
These questions were sharpened for me by the recent death of the American poet Paul Petrie, my best friend’s father, from cancer at the age of eighty-four. In my eyes, he was the original nonconformist — probably because he was the first poet I ever met. With his gray hair over his ears, his horn-rimmed glasses, his slow and plangent voice and perennial glass of milk, he was the unwitting personification of poetry for a teenaged proto-poet unwittingly in training.
Paul’s first book of poems had been published twenty-five years before, in 1963, and it was titled Confessions of a Non-Conformist. The title poem suggests, yet deflects, his difference:
I eat carrots
in public places.
I carry spiders
on the Sunday paper.
I am unfriendly with my banker.
But still wonder.
God-fearing? Free? White? Thirty-one?
Far from the flamboyance of a Beat or even an early hippie, Paul’s nonconformist gestures are nearly invisible. There’s a vestigial Buddhist feel to these lines: the poet is a carrot-eating, spider-rescuing young man who, unlike the more self-dramatizing poets thought to be “Confessional,” quietly brought his inner life indoors, to a house in Rhode Island, and grew it there.
The lines are also humorous, of course. When bankers were people and not beeping machines, one was apparently expected to make small talk with them. But Paul sounds proud not to do that. (Though he seemed to live on another planet from the sedate Petrie, the high octane, über-friendly Frank O’Hara also sped past an uncool Miss Stillwagon, the banker who didn’t check his balance “for once in her life,” on “The Day Lady Died” — the day of Billie Holiday’s death in 1959, which was the same year Paul began his teaching position at the University of Rhode Island.)
But the message of this poem is also serious. By his own lights, the least-conforming thing Paul ever did was to be a poet. As he says in the first stanza of the same poem,
I decided to be
who sings for his bread,
and likes bread.
Yet, as the poem continues to wonder, what kind of unorthodoxy is even possible when one enjoys so many trappings of the mainstream? He was the recipient of white privilege in an America that hovered at the cusp of the Civil Rights movement. He was married, with children. He actually liked bread. How could he be a nonconformist?
The answer lies not only in the banker, but in Auden. His oft-quoted “poetry makes nothing happen,” from the elegy for Yeats, is not the end of the story. After the colon ending that famous clause, Auden continues: “it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper.” Thus poetry doesn’t really make nothing happen; executives think it makes nothing happen, if they are able even to think such things in the first place. Poetry is therefore illegible — no, imperceptible — to those who live their lives by the dictates of the bottom line. Despite their differences in demeanor and aesthetics, then, O’Hara and Petrie staked out similar territories just by being unfriendly with their bankers. (“We must be the last couple in America not to own a credit card,” Paul’s wife Sylvia said with rueful humor, sometime in the nineties.) In so doing, both offered up an antidote to determinism, positivism, capitalism, and — yes — conformism. That antidote was lyric poetry.
Someone will object, of course, that these notions are too idealistic. What of the literary marketplace? Even with fewer publishers and book prizes, no MFA programs, and much less hype, there was still a skeletal market for poetry when Paul came of age. But he didn’t pay much attention to it. O’Hara might have said that Paul Petrie was busy making his own days. He woke up every morning, put on his favorite down jacket, and wrote his poems in bed. His inner life articulated like branches on a winter tree, or the “wintry theatricals” he described in one of his poems.
He published widely in both formal and free verse but had little to do with poetic trends or with the “schools” that can become a safety net for artists and writers. He didn’t apply for fellowships because he thought they should be awarded to poets who didn’t have the good fortune, and the financial security, of a teaching job. He was prolific, but not public.
Thoreau said, “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.” Paul excelled at this, in addition to writing. But, as in the poem above, he “still wondered” about his own place in the literary and metaphysical scheme of things. (The slant rhyme between “banker” and “wonder” is telling, much as Paul Fussell locates the irony that can sometimes attend rhyming words: “The sound similarity ‘says’ that they resemble each other, while the rhetoric of the stanza asserts their difference.”) Despite his successes in publishing, I think Paul came to see his work in an increasingly Dickinsonian sense — as his letter to the world that never wrote back to him. And yet it’s also true that, like Melville’s Bartleby, he himself preferred not to meet social or literary life on its own terms. As the decades passed, he left his house less and less frequently.
How important is it for a poet, in Stevens’s words, “to face the men of the time and to meet / The women of the time”? Did Stevens himself even do that? I have to wonder instead about poetry’s function as an introverted art: the poetic line can act as a material limit to what would otherwise be unreconstructed chatter. And I wonder, too, if Paul’s life and work might allegorize the social and relational difficulty of the poet’s calling throughout literary history, as well as poetry’s ambivalence around the question of the poet’s social role — and by “social,” I mean his relationship both to other poets and to others who are not poets.
To be sure, Western literary history provides ample evidence that poets can be acutely social creatures. Ben Jonson and the Tribe of Ben. The slightly manic sociability of the New York School. In our own time, the writing workshop and the MFA program. Or the poetry blog and Facebook, whose digital snapshots and shout-outs render every reading, no matter how local, an instant celebrity bash.
But Paul might have replied that poets should resist these sorts of moorings. From this other perspective, the poet should set herself apart, “at distance from the Kind,” as Wordsworth said, in order to create her art. This is because poetry has never completely divorced itself from one salient strand of its root in ancient Greece: whatever else it is, poetry is occasional. Its marking of occasion also marks the passing of time in the duration of our own mortalities. This served a social and communal function in the fourth century BCE, but it may require some tincture of the anti-social in ours.
“Poets are conservative,” Paul the nonconformist used to say, hastening to explain that this conservatism had nothing to do with politics. “They want to conserve memory and experience.” The drive toward poetic conservation is occasional, I’d argue, whether we’re conserving something personal, historical, or neither. It can transform a previously unnoticed moment — a patch of red wing, or television noise, or a sentence in Kant’s Critique of Judgment — into the occasion for language. Where is the poet, of any aesthetic stripe, who doesn’t rush to conserve even a fraction of the spark that might blaze as a poem? This need to preserve moments of a perceptual, emotional, or intellectual life in poetic lines does constitute, again in Paul’s words, a “race with time and the devil” — a race that none of us can win. As Sharon Cameron says, writing of Dickinson’s work in particular, “the poles of death and immortality are thus those states that poetic language shuttles between.”
Though we often think ourselves too sophisticated to believe it, this resistance within lyric poetry — its drive to conserve the body, and thus the body’s emanations of mind and spirit — can indeed triumph in small ways over Shakespeare’s “sluttish time.” I’m re-learning this by reading Paul’s poems aloud after his death: they swim to the surface after his disappearance, or the (figurative) drowning of his person. This phenomenon reverses Eliot’s notion that “human voices wake us, and we drown.” Instead, we drown, and then the human voices of our verses wake some of those who remain alive after us. As William Waters has said, reading Shakespeare’s sonnet 81 (“Your monument shall be my gentle verse”),“The ‘immortality’ of poetry is not in the monument but in the breath and voice of the reader. That means: in ourselves, now and here as we read these lines.” Waters also notes that in 1926 Rilke was asked to make a recording of his poems and refused — because he thought the imposition of his own speaking voice might prevent what he wished his poems’ future to be. He wanted them to live on, not as his own repeated and mechanized voice on the record, but as lines spoken in the plural, disparate, and fundamentally unpredictable voices that would belong to his future readers.
But the work that poets do — the amassing of lines that may live as long as there are others who have breath, voice, and the desire to read — can also become a self-ravaging. As Adrienne Rich asked, “What kind of beast would turn its life into words? / What atonement is this all about?”
Some poets may understand what drives the imperative of their own atonements, but this vocation may actually be more difficult when we don’t. Poetic consciousness is not always adaptive in the world at large, particularly in the world of Auden’s executives. So poets may have no choice but to be nonconformists — the squatters and nomads of the soul. Awakened by the mortality of Eliot’s “human voices” — the voices of other poets’ poems, as Paul’s are waking me now — they may retain that curse of wakefulness when nearly everyone else appears to be, in Liam Rector’s words, “sleep-walking through the dream of choice.”
This view of poetry is, admittedly, not very fashionable. It’s not applicable to language games, digital technology gimmicks, or hyper-marketed hipness. But I find that such consciousness of time and mortality, whether explicitly named or not, imbues every poem that is worth reading, and it can reside as readily in the comic as it does in the elegiac. I see perhaps the most poignant examples of it in manuscripts that never see print: poems sent to this magazine by the very elderly, who have finally turned to poetry as a way to measure — in the best poetic sense of that word — their own deaths.
The burden of time and mortality probably weighs on every artist, but why does it seem to define the poet more? Paul Petrie articulated this phenomenon as “strange gravity”:
Strange gravity — that, as I grow
downwards, toward the earth,
loosens those fingers, one by one,
that bound me from my birth.
From Paul’s perspective, the poet’s gravity is what both hobbles and unbinds him. Thus the ineluctable magnetism of growing “downwards,” toward our graves in the earth, is also commensurate with the ecstasy of lightening and unbinding: a self-loosening from the fingers of others that bind our persons to the social and relational world from infanthood onward. The poet’s gravity is born of “distance from the kind,” and Paul knew the liberation it affords is gained at a price:
Death, dark shadow, walk
always by my side.
In your clear shade all living things
During Paul’s last days in hospice, it was his family who stayed by his side. They took turns reading his poems to him, even when they realized he could no longer comprehend what he was listening to. In those moments, I imagine, he might have heard a discontinuous river of sound. He probably didn’t remember what his friend Philip Levine had written about his work in 1987:
I believe it is not only possible but very likely that this poetry which has never been fashionable will quietly pass into the permanent body of our literature, much as the work of Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen, and Weldon Kees has.
That quiet passing consumes me now, as Paul’s words make their way among the arteries that constitute each reader. Like Brian Wilson, Paul wasn’t made for these times. He made his poems in geologic time, and for a certain subterranean dissemination. I hear them surviving in the voices of nonconformists — near the valley of death, where executives would never want to tamper.