Where Is Poetry Now?

I feel differently about poetry these days.  It’s hard to say just how, except to say that I don’t feel the same.  I wonder what that means, but I’m not sure it matters much.  I write less, I think less, I care less.  At times it feels like peace or what I might have imagined peace felt like before I felt like this.  The wind draws on the blinds, a plane passes overhead, the cat announces, “I am here!”  I might have run to scribble these into a poem, and then follow each thought as each thought comes, and finally try to hear what it is that troubles me or what calls to me for celebration or praise.  But it seems praise enough merely to register the sensations, and if anything troubles me it isn’t more than the obvious, which is, after all, no more or less than most people’s troubles.  Life is unsatisfying here, my will wasn’t enough there, I wanted more and gave less where I might have given everything.

Maybe it isn’t poetry I feel differently about.  But it seems as if I’ve crossed some threshold.  “What next?” I ask, and I’m not surprised by what comes.  Or, if I am surprised, I am no longer surprised by the surprise.  This world is marvelous.  These ten thousand things, as the Chinese say, are all marvels to behold.  And I might even add to this marvelous world yet one more testament.  Here a new book begins.  Its first page says, “I know before I know.”  Its last line I might already read.  If this sounds cryptic, it is because my first perceptions or my first attempts at articulating always are.  I know that now about myself, and would ask you – whoever you are – not to be surprised or put off or worried.  Soon I’ll say exactly what I mean.  By then, for me anyway, it will be all but untrue.  It will be a fact.  For now it is so alive in me no words touch it.  And the ones that come close don’t suffice.

I remember when I first decided to be a poet.  Or rather, when I first thought: I could do that.  It seemed as if I had merely found a name for a thing I had known a long time.  Eventually, I set out to cultivate that thing.  Now it sits with me, both a part of me and something besides.  I might have called it, in a previous post, that which is divine.  But that seems silly to me now.  That would only be a trope.  It would be the finger pointing to the moon and not the moon.  And this leads me to the question: Having seen the thing, do all the songs about it dissolve?  Must they?  Should they?  It seems, at least, that a poetry which might be called the poetry of return would have to be different from the poetry of setting out.  Perhaps this is where the real poetry begins.  Where seeing becomes vision!  Where everything is always what it is and something else.  The poetry that preceded this pointed to this.  It was a groping in a dark world, which is now illuminated.

I have thought that the use of poetry, for the conscientious poet, is to provide a kind of paradise, where a listening might occur.  There the poet, according to one theory, becomes better for having arrived.  According to a later theory, the poet becomes better than he otherwise would have been.  According to this new understanding, if it is so new, the poet, having seen the best and worst, thinks nothing of either.  He greets calamity and good news with equanimity.  For him, each step is a step closer to the end.  And what is that end?  If he knows, he doesn’t say.  Why should he?  His work lies before him to do.  So he does it.  It is the simple work of putting one foot in front of the other.  If he set out, he must return.  What he came to find, he found.  If he should be still walking at dusk, what he goes to meet will greet him like a friend.  It may be the last surprise he can hope to have.  It won’t be one because he didn’t expect it but because he did, and it came like a promise fulfilled.

I hope that, arriving where I have to go, I don’t spoil the homecoming.  I want to recognize it and fail to utter a sound.  Let me step into my vision the way a sleepwalker steps into his bed.  I have been that man once.  I will be him again.  My body waits for me where I left it.  My wife, my love, the few good things I know in this world, lie there, too.  This is prayer which springs spontaneously to the lips and tastes, not like ashes and not like honey, but something both sweeter and bitterer than either of these, until who can say which sensation is which.  It occurs to me now to mention something I saw and wondered at last year: a sparrow, the old song sparrow from the hedge, sitting by the rose bush, watching sunset.  I know he knew all there was to know.  This, I thought, has nothing to do with poetry.  This is something else.  Next time I’ll keep even that thought away and wave at all attempts at articulation, until the air is clear.

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3 Responses to Where Is Poetry Now?

  1. Mike Renn says:

    I honestly don’t know where to begin. I guess I’m just hoping to be remembered to start with. I’ve been meaning to write to you for several months, ever since I came across an essay I’d written for your Freshman Composition class I’d taken back in the Fall of ’08. I genuinely appreciated your lecture style and rarely have I ever enjoyed writing prior to the personal essays I submitted for that class. Anyway, more to the point at hand, this post really had an impact on me and that is probably why I now finally have decided to leave a comment. The second half of the second paragraph particularly catches my attention. It resonates with me in a way I can’t quite define but perhaps that’s the point you’re getting at. “For now it is so alive in me no words touch it. And the ones that come close don’t suffice.”

    At any rate, I hope life is treating you well. I apologize if there are any glaring grammatical mistakes that may or may not be irksome to see from a former student, as well as for misinterpreting your writing as I feel I may have done. Oh, by the way, I read Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji recently and I have to admit that it wasn’t my cup of tea. Yet ironically I find reading this blog to be fascinating. I guess poetry just isn’t my thing.



    • Adam Penna says:

      It’s good to hear from you, MIke. Of course, I remember you. And I’m glad you like the blog. Sorry you didn’t like the book, but I guess you can’t please everybody. It would be nice to know what else you’re up to these days. Maybe write me at my work email someday, when you’re free and willing.

  2. George Held says:

    This post is both heartfelt and well written. It shows serious thought about being a poet and should be widely read. Have you tried submitting it to appropriate journals, both online and in print? Morever, more poets would serve themselves well if they, too, questioned their enterprise, took a break, and sought renewal of purpose and practice.
    My review of your LITTLE SONGS… is about to appear in BOOK/MARK, and I hope it will help you in your quest (if that’s not too grandiose a term)for how to resume being a poet.

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