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Journal, Day Two
For about 15 years after graduating from college, I went to just about every poetry reading I could, which in the Bay Area (where I was enrolled in graduate school) was considerable. Now I hardly go to any. Not many actual voices I feel the need to hear. I’d rather stay at home and read the poems out loud to myself, sub-vocalize, remain in control, and avoid the social scene. Is this a matter of age, my younger need to discover what was happening out there, in blue chip venues and bars, university rooms and living rooms, superceded gradually by a need to withdraw, to filter out the noise? . . .
As I’m the designated secretary in charge of organizing the reading series at the university where I teach, perhaps the feeling is nothing more than that of an ice cream freak working the scoop and discovering a craving for tough leafy greens boiled with salt.
Considering the weird in-betweeness of the blog as a space, its informality as form, its public privateness, the act of speaking to oneself in order to be overheard—in that sense (but only), much like a poem. In that sense, a place where poetics fits naturally, as it stretches between poem & world. Maybe that’s why there are so many poetry blogs, and more every day it seems: easier to write than poems, but fulfilling some similar private/social need, if not the need to make art. Then again, if you think it’s all discourse floating at the same level of the air stream, then there’s no difference. (But there is a difference).
In the mail today, the April issue of the Yale Review, with one of the best poems I’ve read in a journal in a while—“Hymn to Persephone,” by Craig Arnold. It starts with a great premise, related in an epigraph, that establishes the voice of the hymn as belonging to a woman related to Pindar, who dreams that he sings the hymn to her; she awakes and writes the poem, thus fulfilling Persephone’s desire to have Pindar sing a song dedicated to the goddess, which he never did while he lived. It starts like this:
Help me remember this: how once, when the dead were locked
out of the ground, and wandered, sleepless and sun-blinded,
she was the one who took them each by the hand and helped them
lay their bodies back in the dark sweet decay
gladly, as onto a lover’s bed. They called her Koré,
the Maiden, a dark queen with a crown of blood-colored poppies,
whose fingers lift the cool coins from a dead girl’s eyelids,
whose breath in a man’s mouth releases him from memory.
I find Arnold’s limpid control here entirely admirable. A sure cadence moves the sentence at a cool, unhurried pace, every line sounding as if measured, however loosely, the parallelism of the last two lines signaling the strophic close, clinched by the conceptual rhyme of memory’s release with the initial imperative asking for help in the act of remembering. It sounds good; a reader easily releases oneself into such confident, evocative storytelling. Throughout the poem, which runs several pages, Arnold remains playfully anachronistic, having his two mythological lovers take the time to carry soiled bed linens to the Laundromat, for example, so they might make love on clean sheets. It sounds corny, and it kind of is corny, but there’s no ironic winking from the poet—he’s established a blended tone that carries it off, at once self-conscious and serious, clever yet bittersweet. It makes me a little jealous; I wish I could do something like that.
Our older boy, age 10, is in a rock band with some school chums. They played their first gig a few weeks ago at the school art fair, one song, “Rocky Raccoon;” now they’re working up a song by Green Day. On his iPod, everything from Camelot to Sleater-Kinney. He seems to have something of a knack for writing lyrics. Unlike other parents who tell me that they read poetry to their kids, I’ve never done that much, although Sarah and I read to the boys every day, mostly in the morning and at night. Have I been shy to impose my own thing on him, or am I withholding, lazy, afraid (stupidly) he wouldn’t like poems? He came home from school the other day and asked to see my book. Okay, what’s up? Maybe we can write a tune for one of your poems and sing it, he said, since some of your poems are like songs. Okay, I said. I flagged the poems I thought he could consider and handed him the book. He read through the poems, smiled occasionally at the ones he remembered from the few readings he’d heard. I left the room as he read on. A few minutes later. Can I see your new poems? he asked. Okay, I said. I flagged some poems in manuscript. He read a few. Can I have a copy of this one? he asked. Okay, I said. I printed it out and left the room. I could hear him chanting the poem, laying a light melody over it. This is kinda weird, I thought. Am I like Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale? Elitist, overbearing, insecure, aggressive, territorial. Uncomfortable notion. “I live with a bunch of critics,” our son once said, asked to characterize life at home. I see myself in the role of Daniels, sitting at the table and remarking on the Tale of Two Cities, “It’s minor Dickens. Why do they always assign a writer’s worst books in high school?” Or something to that effect. I hear myself saying to my son in the car, “Listen to this, these guys are important to Green Day,” as I slide London Calling into the slotted mouth of the disc player. Or we’re playing football outside; I push a little too hard. Insufferable. I came back into the room. My son had inked in new words over some of my lines. I was curious. What are you doing? I’m changing some of the words, he said. Why? I like my words better, he said. But it’s my poem, I said. Yeah, I’m just changing it around a little, he said. Well, you can’t just do that, I said mildly, you have to ask permission of the artist. Can I change some of the words in your poem, Dad? he asked. No, I said with a smile, you can’t. He laughed, Aww, c’mon, really; are you serious? I laughed. Yes, I said, I am.