Follow Harriet on Twitter
The Occasion of Poetry
[Note: Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Rebecca Gayle Howell’s poems “Every Job Has a First Day” and “Something’s Coming but Never Does” appear in the June 2015 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.]
In my twenties I had the good fortune of living in my homeplace, Lexington, Kentucky, a town that hums with the company of neighbors, many of whom are makers. In those days we were all in it together—literature, I mean. It never mattered who was accomplished and who wasn’t. On any given week at any given reading at the local bookstore, a wanderer-in might sit unawares next to Nikky Finney or Maurice Manning; when a big country laugh rolled out the back room, only some of us would know it was Wendell Berry, at it again with his buddies. If it was a warm night the doors and windows would be open, and as you walked up the block toward the door you’d hear against the noise of cars and katydids all the talk and remembering. If winter was with us, you’d open to the quiet an instant racket I only know to call community, and you’d heat yourself by it alongside the rest of us slap happy souls until some tired someone turned out the lights.
I helped edit a local literary magazine during this time, and when I wrote Wendell to ask him if I could publish a poem of his, I didn’t give it much thought. I mean I knew Wendell, but I didn’t understand who Wendell was (I had to leave Kentucky to find that out). What I wanted was to publish a poem worth reading, and I knew where to look for it. Whether you know Wendell or know of him, it doesn’t matter: he’ll write you back. On the long sheets torn from his yellow legal pad, he’ll return his thoughts to yours the morning following your letter’s arrival, and he’ll sign his, Your friend. In response to what, under more worldly circumstances, would have been a garish request on my part, I received a sheaf of twenty or thirty poems from which I was encouraged to choose as many or as few I saw fit. He wrote that he wouldn’t be surprised if there was nothing for us in the pile, that it was all occasional verse, that he was, more or less now, an occasional poet, a poet who wrote occasionally.
Occasional poetry has a long convention of pageantry—poems hired out, commissioned to celebrate, mourn, or in some way put a pin in a particular instant of history. I think of Mr. Frost’s “The Gift Outright,” our nation’s first inaugural poem which commemorated Kennedy’s election by declaring imperialism our native triumph. Or, come some thirty years later, Ms. Angelou’s inaugural correction, “On the Pulse of Morning,” which gave our land a god’s voice and spoke the chilling lines: “Come, you may stand upon my / Back and face your distant destiny, / But seek no haven in my shadow. I will give you no hiding place down here.” Of course there are those other poems that would not be paid for but censored by such commissioners (Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America” or Ezra Pound’s The Pisan Cantos), but I also think of Gwendolyn Brooks’s A Street in Bronzeville or Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, poetry that speaks into the forgetting air what should not be forgotten. In his letter to me, Wendell didn’t mean he was being paid to write high, public verse. I think, in fact, he meant something like its opposite. To be occasional means to be willing to be of your time and place, to be of the mortal moment.
Almost twenty years gone from those late Kentucky nights of literary friendship, and I find myself in community with relative strangers, other transient emerging voices tweeting memorials to what is likely America’s greatest generation of poets. Carolyn Kizer. Ai. Amiri Baraka. Adrienne Rich. Lucille Clifton. Galway Kinnell, Maxine Kumin. Phillip Levine. Maya Angelou. Ruth Stone. Gil Scott-Heron. Grace Paley. Claudia Emerson. Lou Reed. Giants of sanity’s work, all gone in a small pile of years. If we can still believe in a human democracy, it is in no small way thanks to these cantankerous, righteous souls. I wish I could hold each in their passing, put my forehead to their foreheads, kiss them goodbye. I cannot. Though I’ve spent my adult life reading, memorizing their poems, charting their words like compass guides, they lived across time from me, and, now, make their neighborhood on history’s other shore. All I know to do is read. And write. And by that I mean, I want to learn their courage of the here and now.
TELL US AGAIN
February 16, 2015