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Poets Forum (Part 1)
At the suggestion of my editor Emily, I attended the Academy of American Poets’ Poets Forum at Marymount College on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. With no traffic, it’s an hour’s drive from my hamlet to the most expensive neighborhood on the globe. In a moment of inattention, I nearly tripped over a teacup-something leashed by a mannequin-like creature dressed to the nines at ten a.m. of a Saturday.
The crowd filling the auditorium contained many students with notebooks. The panel assembled before us was dressed largely in black: Robert Pinsky, Charles Simic (in gray, breaking with tradition), Susan Stewart, Lyn Hejinian and moderator Tree Swenson.
I haven’t been to many events like this; I have never once attended a meeting at the AWP or MLA. Most of the names that dominate the field are still only that—names—though it’s been twenty years since I first heard of Sharon Olds or Galway Kinnell.
As it turns out, the forum was more improvisatory than prepared, more story than argument: it was poets sharing. Which was perfectly lovely, as things got said that should be said, often, to the students that packed the venue. In fact, I sorely wished some Harriet commenters had been at this event, during which I felt vindicated at points (Kinnell quoting Emily Dickinson’s “The Soul Selects Her Own Society;” Pinsky’s “if there’s nothing besides entertainment industry and academic industry” in poetry, we’re lost; Stewart’s admonition not to be in a hurry about having a career.)
Panel 1: Unlikely Influences
1. Lyn Hejinian began by playing Carl Stalling’s “To Itch His Own,” an expressive composition for animated cartoons, on a tiny boombox. Hejinian used it to dramatize the concepts of rupture and linkage, since the transitions between riffs and phrases in the Stalling piece were abrupt and comical.
2. Robert Pinsky cited an early science fiction story by James Blish , “Surface Tension.” This story in which a stranded colony of space travelers use their genetic material to create tiny puppet colonies of people who live in water was, for Pinsky, “the birth of thought.”
3. Charles Simic told the story of playing truant when he was thirteen or fourteen years old, simply ceasing to go to school and wandering the city of Belgrade during school hours to deflect suspicion. At one point his own mother passed him in the street, giving him a momentary heart attack; but she failed to see him. The experience of deception, he admits, was simultaneously a guilty pleasure and a defiant “Fuck you” to the world.
4. Susan Stewart recalled the church hymns and Sunday School Milton excerpts from her childhood, the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside. Minding the etymological root of the word in fluid and flow, she offered a swirl of influences from childhood to adulthood, friendships with visual artists who taught her about process, street noise that filters into her study where she writes, her children’s favorite music, and also one negative influence: the women poets “who destroyed themselves” in the generation before hers.
All of the poets—save, perhaps, Simic—spoke with the ease and eloquence of those who have spent years in the classroom; at points one did feel oneself in the presence of teachers, but mostly the tone was personal, autobiographical, untheatrical. I exempt Simic from this only because of all the poets who spoke that day, he seemed to be the most distrustful of talk, of advice. His story about the ecstasy of deceit seemed to be an intervention, implying our best intentions to tell the “truth” possibly paved the way to somewhere else entirely.
The notion that American culture is a joyful “mish-mash,” that the many poetries that exist now constitute the equivalent of “biodiversity,” was mostly a cause for celebration, with only Hejinian’s caveat that a simplistic embrace of everything may amount to flattening it—that different poets really do have enormously different projects. She left it at that, alas.
There were political tremors: Stewart said she thought of us as almost a “suicide species” by this point, and reiterated her claim from Poetry and the Fate of the Senses that she wanted poetry to be an “alternate time experience” reclaimed from late capitalism’s hegemony over our lives. Leisure time is being stolen from us, language is degraded and commercialized in facile ways, and anything made for “serious human ends” is rendered irrelevant. Pinsky admitted to being enslaved by The New York Times, “the daily anger and frustration.” Stewart countered that it’s our responsibility to refuse the imperative of newspapers: read five pages of good poetry or prose each day and write a page on it. Call a friend and read it to them. Keep a commonplace book of your favorite sentences.
When I came home that evening, I was ready to drape myself, stupified, in front of the television with a glass of something good and strong. There was the red Netflix envelope; but first, a go-round of the cable channels. So I fell to watching The Birds on AMC, because my eyes demanded it. I don’t pretend to understand how he creates such impeccable frames, but I’m hooked from the first glimpse of a costume, a coif, a posture of Hitchcock.
Knowing that Silent Spring was published in 1962 makes The Birds—which contains quips about nature’s revenge on our befouling species—not as prescient as it first appears. Ideas of environmental destruction were already in the air. But in the scene where a man oblivious to the river of gasoline at his feet lights a cigar and immediately self-immolates—where cars burst into flame—where Melanie Daniels in a phone booth looks like a couture mannequin in a vitrine caught in the Apocalypse—where the sign CAPITOL OIL CO. looms in the background of the conflagration—these details add up to far more than a few lines of dialog about despoliation. An artist’s ability to see the future, to capture truth, is not a function of political thinking. Where else but his subconscious could Hitchcock have dredged such oily looking crows? Likewise something tells me those silly commercials I’m seeing of the latest horror movie are subliminally muttering empire for vampire.
To be continued.