Next month, S4N Books releases my first full-length collection of poems, Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji. Actually, the book contains not one full-length collection, but two long sequences. The first, “Little Songs,” is a series of sonnet-like poems presented in the order in which they were written. The second, “Lyrics to Genji,” addresses an imaginary friend named Genji. These, too, are presented in the order in which they were written, and try to explore the same material “Little Songs” do, but from another, more playful perspective. “Lyrics to Genji” is a response to a rejection letter I received after submitting some of the “Little Songs” to a magazine where I had always had luck publishing. The editor of the magazine wrote me a handwritten note suggesting, for his tastes, my little songs were too sad.
When I began to write the little songs, the aim was merely to right myself each day. These poems served as daily meditations, and so if they take a more spiritual or even devotional tone this is one of the reasons. If you read the rest of the blog, you’ll see that, indeed, the poet’s attitude toward the spirit and the divine is a preoccupation of mine. Further, I have suggested it ought to be a central concern for all poets and readers of poetry. I can’t imagine an entirely secular poetry worth reading. Every poet, and this ought to be especially true of American poets, I think, is a religious poet. I mean religious, of course, in the widest possible sense of the word, and mean it to include those affiliated with a certain brand of religion and those who have found what suffices elsewhere.
It may be fair to say that this book, beginning with the little songs and ending with the lyrics, are the narrative of my spiritual attitudes as they developed over the course of more than a year. My spirit has been and continues to be restless and curious. And I find the more I search the more certain I am there is something to be found, and the more certain I am that almost all of my previous notions have been just as misguided as they have been earnest. In fact, while it is safe to say that these poems accurately catalogue a desire for truth, they are also a chronicle of failures. They must be, because even the best poems must fail. However close they come, that which a poem seeks to define always lies just beyond its power to say. It is because of this that Whitman calls for strong readers. Strong readers are ones that read keeping in mind that these are only outlines.
I have written a lot about what the uses of poetry are. It many ways the poems in this book are the proving ground for those ideas. Maybe it is more accurate to say that the entries here are extensions of notions, which were first discovered in these sequences. I have followed the line of thinking, which I first read in Emerson, that says a man might put his faith in the fact that his work will cohere because there is something coherent in being. This, then, isn’t only a literary or poetic faith, but a faith I have found to be true of my actions in the world. These things we do mean something, and it is the job of faith to find what they mean with a full heart, a broken heart, or a heart on the mend. Who could or would avoid such a charge would avoid all of life. Or all of life worth living.
I have said that a poet, because he is a poet, may not be a better person but, because he writes poetry, is a better person than he would otherwise be. I understand that this argument is an especially romantic one, but I mean it with all humility. I didn’t write these poems, neither have I ever put pen to paper, because I thought that what I had to say was worth much to anyone else. The writing of these poems, and all poems, is as selfish an art as one might endeavor to perfect. And yet I can’t help but think that, at its best, poetry makes it possible, if nothing else, for the self, the weary, the silly and self-seeking atom, to escape those traps and blind alleys and find, in the end, the paradise it wanted to find. I have not come to that walled-garden yet, but already I smell the fragrance of joy. Perhaps it is just beyond. Perhaps it is all around.