As much as I dislike giving them, readings are a necessary part of poetry. A poem is meant to be heard and, further, meant to be heard by an audience. Plus, they are, readings are convenient – is that the right word? – opportunities to begin the process of gathering a collection together. Picking and choosing which poems work together and in what order, and then testing that order and those poems by reading them to an audience hastens the long and tedious process – the part of the process that takes the longest for me to complete, by the way – of making a coherent collection.
I’m scheduled to read tonight at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor. It’s one of my favorite places in the world, and the shop is run by two women, who I admire terrifically and like a lot. I probably read there once a year or so. It seems that whatever work I’m working on doesn’t really exist for me until I read it there. I owe the publication of The Love of a Sleeper to a Canio’s reading. It was after a reading there last fall (’07) that George Held suggested I submit a manuscript to Finishing Line. I did, and the rest is history.
But still, the part of poetry I like the most isn’t the reading. It is the making. The initial coming together of a poem. I just wrote one a few minutes ago, which – though I’m sure flawed in many, many ways – came together just like that. (Insert Snap! here.) One word led to the next to the next to the next, until, voila, a poem came into being. The poem is about a kind of diminished joy, one felt not in victory but in the impotence of defeat. There is a joy to be found there, too. And it is a more commonly experienced joy, though frequently – more often than not – it is overlooked or misnamed. That idea, the misnaming of experience, interests me most in poetry. Each poem is, I think, an opportunity to get it right. The naming of a thing, which – without its label – can’t be comprehended. It can be felt, but not totally understood. Or even – and this may be truer – partially understood. We are always walking around in the dark, and words, well, are the light of the world, to paraphrase Stevens.
I don’t want to overstate the case here. Poetry isn’t the only way to name one’s experiences. It may not even be the best way. But it is, without a doubt and certain beyond dispute, the way poets come to understand. And I used to be fond of thinking that this placed poets above and beyond their fellow men and women, because they attempted to name in particular language what others were willing to take second- or even third-hand. But now I wonder if it isn’t some essential flaw in them, a sensitivity too fond, which requires them to reach for equilibrium.
Maybe this isn’t quite what I mean either. Maybe poetry is a noble effort, even the noblest of efforts, only its benefits are sorely overestimated and too highly prized. Maybe the aim of poetry, beyond reflection and revision, is to strip us as naked as possible, so that we might be whipped by the wind. So that we might see, indeed, what actually is, who we actually are, this mingling of spirit and dust.