[Editor’s note: This essay appears, in slightly different form, in Zach Savich’s memoir, Diving Makes the Water Deep, available from Rescue Press.]
That talking about poetry can feel like rinsing soup. Dickinson: “They shut me up in Prose.” Keats: “It is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it.” (He says this in preference for the actual, not as a dissembling via negativa, à la some recent facile deconstructionism of certain critics, which claims actual poetry is chiefly of value for the impossible ideals it invokes and fails to achieve, as though the value of a friend is in how they fail to be every other friend or an Ideal friend or this meal is better when it’s pure potential, or even better when it’s undercooked and thus brings to mind a better version, and some toothsome bile, rather than a specific tomato with basil in your mouth. Especially if you’re hungry, the meal is better in your mouth, the actual meal, the actual friend at your table, the imperfect sun in your eyes, the millions of suns that Whitman knew are left are real, he identified them, didn’t imagine them, le Paradise n’est pas artificiel but spezzato, and stranger.)
That talking about poetry can feel like there’s this drug that will fuck up your own personal liver, so you feed it to a horse (prose) and drink the (poetics) urine. The horse does not survive. (Poet, step away from that horse.)
Jay emails from Seattle:
“Well, your note (wrote ‘night’ first!) and this cup of coffee kept me from swatting myself back into my paid-work where I ‘ought’ to be as Finn is off iding ferns in Seward Park with Alex (‘swowd foon!’) and I’m also dealing with gutter guy, weedwhacker repair guy, etc., and last night’s weird dead blankly-menacing humidity broke into a big red sunset and this crisp sea-salty morning. Still hot. Cait’s out of town—taking a test in la with actors paid to fake medical problems which C is challenged to diagnose—so I’m otherwise always with Finn. ‘Cucumber moon!,’ he shouted three nights ago in that Yeatsy ‘trembling blue-green’ evening. ‘Man onna moon poop inna sock?,’ he asked the last time I changed his diaper. ‘Axolot!’ he shouted when he saw one in a book. So I guess this indicates, if I also tell you I’m reading Bartone’s book Paul’s Romans Ch7/8 (all creation is groaning) Pound’s Classic Anthology and Helen Keller writing about how it feels to be deaf and blind, where my head is at.”
I’m looking at a picture of us in Texas, a decade ago. He looks beautiful in a sweater vest and I am laughing at anything.
That a colleague has started giving me his books. Zukofsky’s A, knotty critical works, some of Pound’s more obscure translations. It seems he’s keeping the more lyrical volumes for his shelves. I tell him, oh, Pound can be sweepingly lyrical, too, and I quote some lines. Having read much of Pound to find those lines. I would rather now discuss them with my friend.
I would rather talk to him than read, in part, because the memory I’m hurt into is of the present, in which I often find beauty painful to behold, that it should exist, its affront, despite all this, world and its conditions, and mine, leading where. Hard to imagine devoting hours now to reading the pages I would need to, to find more lines to recite. I am left with what I have, typical as it is. Perhaps the issue is that illness is an inherently lyrical state, in what it does to a self and time, in how it removes one from the striving world, so what need for poetry? Yeats: “Maybe at last being but a broken man / I must be satisfied with my heart.”
I never wanted literature, to read or write, not exactly. I wanted the life it has taught me to see. And now? Carl Phillips: “The way art can become, eventually, all we have / of what was true.” Which I used to hear as an ambition, not a lament: to become only art.
When my father first had cancer, he wrote a draft of a novel. It included a character who was writing a novel while a lake destroyed the resort he owned. In the end he throws his novel into the lake, lets the resort crumble, returns to his wife. I have spent my life trying to write a book that is worth throwing into such a lake.
The book entering the water—equivalent to the quality of the affection that carves a trace in the mind.
That, beauty being painful to behold, I stay up watching action movies. Let there be Russian roulette in the pre-credits. Then the hero, a broken man, is avoiding memories by drinking. He’s at a liquor store, counting coins for the cheapest liter, when wannabe robbers burst in, you wanna make trouble broken man, shut up! But he remembers— no, he can’t not remember—his training in the application of pain, blammo! The baddies go down. Store’s owner is like just take the bottle. He drinks staggering home.
“Let me explain. When I’m sober. When I’m healthy and well. I hurt people. I drink to weaken the machine they made,” says one broken hero in his ending speech, explaining to his girl how come after he got all the revenge he immediately went to shit again. (We love us our trauma heroes, easier than hating all that causes trauma, or imagining ways of experiencing experience that are as full as trauma and of trauma yet not trauma exactly, or that imagine trauma as something other than a personal affliction/obstacle/attribute? So that the goal isn’t a tale of individual triumph but shared seeing, being in it? Hugo, on a ruined town: “I was desolate, too, and so survived.”)
You’ve read so many memoirs about people stopping drinking, it has sometimes felt like why would you need to? You already know what it would be like.
You’ve drunk enough in some far-ago seasons to have considered it stopping drinking to not add whiskey to your coffee in the morning, or to start the day with beer instead of whiskey, or to sober up at the night’s end with a bottle of white wine instead of gin and whatever, or to not feel anxious if there’s less than a bottle per person at the party.
Equally reasonable response to my specific illness: drink as much as I can while I can, light the dance floor’s lanterns with hundred dollar bills, assassinate some lobbyists, drive all the cars.
I may not know what is reasonable.
The phrase appeals to me—hurt into memory—because it seems better than having memory lead to hurt, preserving it. (How much of this view is generational? I remember hating how Bush’s response to September 11th required holding onto a mythic and infantilized idea of the us’s innocence, in order to support his version of the assault. I remember hating most his saying “you are either with us or against us,” feeling comforted, in Europe, by graffiti responding “Bush: neither nor.” It is hard for me to imagine phrasing almost anything in terms of “with us or against us,” whatever the cause; I do not know if this is correct. I suppose I think about poetry as I do because of this.) But when hurt into memory. The child cries and there’s the world.
Edgar’s curse in King Lear, the most affecting I know: “O world.” Every poem an extension. Each will astonish you.
Edgar, who flees his birthright, responsibilities, feigning madness. Until he meets the actually mad king. For whom suffering is not liberty but frustration, choicelessness, fear. Poets who prefer to be Edgar on the heath.
Jay’s letter is better than most essays about poetry. Let’s say because it offers inductive poetics rather than deductive poetics. This is a distinction I have invented just now and won’t ever mention again. Deductive poetics precede from premises. E.g., you might have a premise like you don’t like postmodern poetry, no matter how superb it is. Or that a poem should primarily demonstrate/engage with/counter a particular theory or be pleasing to a particular scene or advance your own or someone else’s celebrity. You then write and read and evaluate and discuss poems—that is, you arrive at varied experiences of poetry—in relation to those premises. Inductive poetics precede from experience. Language is experiential. La la. Yum. You then write and read and evaluate and discuss poems—that is, you arrive at varied premises about poetry—in relation to those experiences. These results might contradict. Brilliant!
“I wanted the work to show the process of composition,” a poet told me recently, as though any work doesn’t, as though cracks don’t appear in each loaf, as though you can build a perfect birdhouse. He is reverent to that premise. It absolves him.
As though Shakespeare or whoever didn’t know language is material and word/world conflict and the self is multiple and performed and also real and sound rushes ahead of sense in revealing yet reorienting ways within a manner of speaking in a place and time, but these are minor points, or starting points, not sufficient conclusions to be pious toward. Hopkins and Herbert as religious poets of inductive poetics, compared to the deductive religious poets of dogma or the deductive experimental or proudly conservative poets of dogma. Predictable types of sounds come from the audience in response and they leave affirmed. (What Frost says about modern poetry being of subtraction, not addition: I read a book in which every line is a certain kind of pun, isolated technique, one gummy bear in the test tube, but where are the real bears?)
That I’m trying to read poems instead of reading what people are saying about poetry online, the commentary and corrections, media cycles of instant response and what do we agree we all hate today (I am thinking about a particular spat, will not record it). I find there is usually more in the poems. So I pick up Lovers in the Used World by Gillian Conoley. The book’s title is poem (and poetics) enough. When its title is no longer poem and poetics enough, you can read the title of the first poem:
Then its first phrase:
“It was just a gas station.”
The title and first phrase are poem and poetics enough.
I emailed T—— about it:
“Epiphany is fine, but more than wisdom, maybe one wants the posture that comes after, which, given time, I suppose also means comes before. I love the hugeness of the poem’s title, of the initial ‘it.’ How ‘just’ doesn’t deflate magnitude but retains it—renders it, in every sense—offering ‘just’ proportion. It has the quality of ‘common everyday inevitability’ you mentioned a while ago, a gorgeous phrase. The real epiphany is another moment.”
I continued (I was excited, I couldn’t sleep, wish to indulge this while I can):
“Anyhow, I know, I know, such a posture might seem nonchalant or diffident, or even to valorize disavowal, preferring the aftermath to the precise thick of it, but I’m increasingly desirous of/trusting in (I mean those words the same? to trust is to desire?) its qualities of spanking, focused ease, which are far from simple. Reminds me of Creeley’s ‘Envoi’—do you know it? Gleefully dismantles the premises of creative writing pedagogy:
Particulars they want,
fucking well will
get, love. For openers,
earth revolves about
“Which sounds reckless, defiant, but also is a mode of restraint and even more difficult REVERENCE: insisting that ‘you’ is a sufficient particular, equivalent to multiple stars, and thus there must be multiple earths, or zagging pinball earths, in relation to them. There’s restraint, in the opening, but also hurtling. Sense of crashing into a landscape and then pausing there. Is this a meadow? You find a clearing, apparent lack, so you can see what’s moving in it—this is pure Whitman? Has both careening and care, I think. Reminds me of a line from your book, one I think of often: ‘with some coaxing they move on their stilts’—the stilts are already on!! I love that tenderness, the coaxing is itself acrobatic…”
But I can’t shake that thought about deductive and inductive poetics. Jay mentioned Pound, and I keep mentioning Pound, and I mentioned religion, so I’m reminded of Pound’s speculation about religion in The Spirit of Romance:
“There are, as we see, only two kinds of religion. [The type] where someone, having to keep a troublesome rabble in order, invents and scares them with a disagreeable bogie, which he calls god.
“…forms of ecstatic religion, on the other hand, are not in inception dogma or propaganda of something called the one truth or the universal truth; they seem little concerned with ethics; their general object appears to be to stimulate a sort of confidence in the life-force. Their teaching is variously and constantly a sort of working hypothesis acceptable to people of a certain range of temperament—a ‘regola’ which suits a particular constitution of nerves and intellect.… One must consider that the types which joined these cults survived, in Provence, and survive, today—priests, maenads and the rest—though there is in our society no provision for them.”
I spend more time with The Spirit of Romance. I could still feel nostalgic for a time when a critical move was to perform a “who would win” on Shakespeare vs. Dante. Have I mentioned the best image in all of poetry? Elizabeth Bishop, somewhere in her letters, identifies the best image in all of poetry. The best image in all of poetry, I believe she says, is the end of W.H. Auden’s “The Fall of Rome”:
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.
That’s what I mean about correctives vs. what’s correct (yes who can say what is correct yes it varies and changes and the meanings do we can’t say it perfectly yes yes but we say something true for now try to you know when you are trying to it is possible or listen until we hear). It is a good corrective to say we shouldn’t be concerned with canonical “who would wins” or identifying the best. But I’d like to read those essays, aware they will be partial, absurd, circumstantial—what’s wrong with the partial, with what we are partial to? I mention this, ridiculously ventingly, to some friends in a reply-all. They pick up on the question about the best image.
“Reading all over, in no real order, parts of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. I’m sure all of you combined, or even alone, would add so much to what’s already in this book about perhaps one of the earliest and most powerful images in the Western world. I read about Keats seeing her, a combination of love, death from consumption, and poetry, and how, when she leaves, she leaves him ‘Alone and palely loitering.’ I know you said to keep quiet about the best, which I can do, since today it’s picturing Keats all a mess, unable to marry Fanny Brawn for so many reasons, and then does entering the poem (‘Belle Dame Sans Merci’) almost turn poetry itself into that one final unreach for him? …but then I read ‘the close connection of winds with the Goddess is also shown in the widespread popular belief that only pigs and goats (both anciently sacred to her) can see the wind, and the belief that mares can conceive merely by turning thire hindquarters to the wind,’ and this is now the image, today, that alives me again. All this during coffee, then, later to the pool with the kids. Yesterday it was goats and bison, fishing with bamboo rods with corn bait, and they catch 5 bluegill but afraid to toss them back, so I did, and feeling my hands get that fish itch from the sharp poke of some part of the fins.”
“Momentarily I’m thinking of what needs to be painted and what needs to be packed and maybe there is some poetic value in the image of the soggy cornflakes on the floor?”
“Outside the window the Lost River isn’t open yet but red lifeguards putter over foot bridges made of faux rock and fountains make ejaculatory protests from the wading pools. The hallways of Glacier Canyon lodge are endless, the carpet end-stopped with moose. The older child says she is going to bed with her boyfriend and her husband. The younger child shrieks and shrieks and that makes his roseola rash brighter. My father is wearing a swimming suit that actually seems to be knee-length biking shorts.
“I haven’t read a whole book of poetry for a long time. My town puts little poems on the sidewalk, though. Like in Iowa City except the poets are not-famous and the poems sometimes not-good. Mine should be stamped in cement sometime in August.”
And you want me to read literary criticism? You want me to believe that life is foregone, merely theoretical, that this week’s cheesiest online click-bait poetry debates and social calibrations matter more than how words move fully in these full lives? (I do not record the specific debate, there are some I celebrate…) Or that poetry should aspire to something tv or newspaper editorials or other forms do better, no matter how much of life and language that leaves out, rather than…
One can’t overstate the value of continual insistence…
On art’s values, its terms and values…
Which include questions of how meaning is made, is harder than what we know…
And that is the work of poetry…
To have a thing that exists by such insistence…
Says a lot about what surrounds it…
What lets it continue existing, such a tendril…
What need for heaven…
I haven’t mentioned my pain in a bit, keep taking pills, trying not to think about the next tests. “Pity me,” the troubadour cries. And then? One is pitied and remains equally piteous.
At the end of the film the broken man speaks to whoever is left and keeps talking, longer than he should, inevitably, as Beckett knew.
I’ve realized that this essay, loosely about poetics, in favor of looseness about poetics, is really an essay about friendship. I would care most to talk about poetry as a way of talking with a friend. Deductive/inductive—wouldn’t it be better if we were in a kitchen? You could help me care or not.
Zach Savich was born in Michigan in 1982 and grew up in Olympia, Washington. He received degrees from the Universities of Washington, Iowa, and Massachusetts. His work has received the Iowa Poetry Prize, the Colorado Prize for Poetry, the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s Open Award, and other honors. His fifth collection of poetry, The Orchard Green and Every Color, was published by Omnidawn in 2016. He teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, and co-edits Rescue Press’s Open Prose Series.
Illustrations by Christian Patchell