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Jonathan Farmer
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Reading and writing are solitary pleasures, and yet both can offer a profound sense of connection. Writing these posts, I hear what I always do when I write, a version of my own voice, sometimes confident—as though I’m convinced by my own posture that someone wants to hear what I’m saying—sometimes trying too hard to sound confident, as though I’m fighting against the vulnerability of it all. After all these years of writing, I still haven’t learned how to write without aspiring to authority (pun intended, I guess), which is (he writes with apparent confidence) one of my biggest weaknesses. I taught “Saint Judas” the other day, and the poem’s last line has been on my mind. “I held the man for nothing in my arms.” For nothing—for free, and for no reason, with no hope. Judas is redeemed—exchanged into meaning, into life—only when he doesn’t seek any compensation. We want our love to matter. We want to build monuments to our love*. But when we do so, even inspired by our love, we begin to misconstrue. Or, if not misconstrue, reveal. That we are human, that we want to be more than human, that in our moments of selflessness some self-interest lurks. Nothing grotesque, necessarily. Just a wish for this passion to be valuable, meaningful, true. So it is when we love poems, and even more so when we love poetry, when we become, in some public way, people who read, write, love poems. We want to redeem our love. And so we do build monuments—National Poetry Month; “men die miserably every day.” And sometimes (I think) we misconstrue and reveal and we get territorial, and love looks less like love than a domain. “Love should be put into action!” shouted Elizabeth Bishop’s hermit. And then the echo “tried and tried to confirm it,” the slightly funny feminine (can we come up with a better term for this?) rhyme mocking as gently as the echo itself. When I started writing poems, I was certain that what I was doing mattered. I could feel it. Now, as I grow less convinced that poetry matters in its own right and, maybe related, less convinced that my own writing has particular worth, I find I’m more drawn to usefulness—teaching, publishing, writing criticism. I think of the people who go into prisons and teach poems, who do indeed put their love into action, and powerfully so. And I think of the poets and critics who look for a political purpose in their art, sometimes plausibly, sometimes less so. This is all a long way of saying something painfully obvious: when we write or read or teach poems, we’re still people. And if the poem serves as a cue for us to think and hear in a slightly different key, that’s only a translation. We still do the things people everywhere do—we delude ourselves, we get carried away, we answer to or resist the codes of behavior we’ve learned, we try to place ourselves... Continue reading
Posted Sep 21, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
I’ve just finished a review of Lucille Clifton’s Collected Poems for next month’s Slate Book Review. I wanted to cover the book for a variety of reasons, chief among them the fact that some of Clifton’s poems have been immensely important to me. But I wanted to write about it, too, because I’m the only poetry critic for the Review, and I think it’s important that the poetry there represent some of the diversity that makes up American culture. It’s a challenging assignment, which was also part of its appeal. In the book’s afterword, Kevin Young places Clifton’s poetry in the context of the Black Arts movement, writing of “a public poetry—one aware of its audience and even pitched at times toward a newfound audience that it was both meeting and making.” As someone who is, among other things, white, male, straight and the child of college graduates, I’m not used to waiting for a poem to reach out to me. Anxiety and insecurity may have defined much of my identity, but I’ve approached most texts in my life with an unexamined confidence that they were there for me—that I belonged in reading. But sitting down to a poem that takes its time to make others welcome, as Clifton’s occasionally do, I have to learn to listen in context, to overhear sometimes, be self-aware of myself as someone with a race and a gender and a non-universal (privileged) place in the society we share. And to still be present in the middle of that. I teach an amazing group of 10th graders* right now, and I decided to try out a Clifton poem on them: “homage to my hips.” Some loved it. Some found it simplistic, at least at first. No one talked about race, which was interesting to me. The language of empowerment has become so generalized in our culture, I think, that even a phrase like “these hips have never been enslaved” can easily slide into mere metaphor. Too, the specifically “black” diction, which is such an essential component of Clifton’s power as a poet—her persuasive claim to authority—has been widely and variously co-opted, and at the same time we have learned to deal with race by pretending it isn’t there. I suspect that I struggle with these things, too, with the challenge, at least in some poems, of hearing Clifton clearly across not only my difference but also our difference—the years that have passed since Clifton first sat down to her incredible life’s work. To their immense credit, though, my students were able to cross over with me, and with agility, to speak and think perceptively about the ways the poem matters in its very specific context—the black body, which was the thing a slaveholder owned; the black female body that is still judged by its “whiteness”; the freedom implied by a woman, especially an African American woman, choosing to exercise her ability to elicit male desire. It is an odd thing for me to enter the... Continue reading
Posted Sep 20, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
“Kind” and “kind”—adjective and noun. They go back to the same root, one they share with “kin.” Family, sex, rank: it’s all in there. An idea of belonging, or not. Enlarging the circle, or not. As I get older, I value kindness more and more. And yet I’ve never been able to get all that excited about my membership in the human family, or the family of all living things, or the family of poets, aspiring and otherwise. Whatever we are, we aren’t one, and spare me the poem that says otherwise. Kindness, for me, is a humbling—not ignoring distinctions, but imagining the ways I am obliged beyond likeness; living in the possible irrelevance of my own unique being, out on a margin of the itself-eccentric world. For me, the power of words, including their unreliable, enchanting power to connect, rests in their ability to divide. Each word is a grouping, yes, but also a distinction. My mentor, Alan Shapiro, insists: all poetry comes down to pattern and variation. So do our words. There is something comforting in existence, odd as that may sound, and I grow selfish of my ability to be not-you sometimes. It feels protective—encircling. I am in me enclosed. It’s a place to start. But being a poetry person—it makes me feel claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time. It’s like the joke from Annie Hall: “Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of them says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know. And such small portions.’” It’s such a big space—poetry—and there are so many people in here, too. It gets ugly on both ends—the too-easy identification of us all with each other in some kind of one-note harmony, and the too-fierce attempt to plant the tallest flag on this tiny plot. If poetry is a moral enterprise, it’s never moral in its own right. Taste, by itself, has to do with pleasure, not positioning, and our attempts to imagine otherwise often seem to serve unethical ends—the need to denigrate, relegate, refuse. We police each other’s enjoyment with such outrage that there must be some ulterior afoot. The obvious answer: our own identities are encroached on. I’ve written about one example elsewhere*—have written unkindly myself, I realize now, though one of the unkindest comparisons still seems apt. The ways that we want to outlaw each other’s affections remind me of the ways people fear that someone else’s love will somehow impinge on their own. Of course, the consequences are monumentally smaller here, but it’s still worth keeping in mind that pleasure is partly cultural, and if taste is not itself a moral position (no matter how often certain critics try to make it so), it does have a moral dimension, in as much as it represents other identities that have moral significance in our society: race, class, etc. And so the denial of a given taste—the refusal to allow for its validity—can... Continue reading
Posted Sep 19, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
These days, in this country, if you ask someone why poetry matters, she probably won’t reach for Shelley. Poets had a much better chance of being the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” back when some of the acknowledged legislators still read poems—and the emphasis on power and control doesn’t sit as well with the democratic ideals that shape so much of the thinking about American poetry. Now, you’re more likely to hear from William Carlos Williams: It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. Williams sets it up: “despised poems.” Despised but, apparently, essential. I love the poem, but for my own purposes I prefer to misread those lines. The implication for Williams and those who deploy him seems to be that men (and women) die miserably because they are missing something that’s found exclusively in poems. I don’t buy that. Instead, I think we die (and live) miserably for lack of something that can be found in poems—and in many other places, too. Movies, concerts, mountains, love. We need meaning, and pleasure, and poems are one way to find those things. And yet: some of the meaning of poems, some of the meaning that comes from caring about poems, seems to depend on the feeling that they are essential. When poetry first courted me, it did so by offering conviction—a moral enterprise, quality counting for everything, every word, every sound. Even as I shied away from calling myself a poet, I found an identity in my care for poems. I found myself called to a halfway point—a medium—and imagined I’d arrived. Sometimes it feels like we’re circling, warily, not wanting to say what it means to be one of us. We step away from the too-easy identity it can confer. Louise Glück: “I use the word ‘writer’ deliberately. ‘Poet’ must be used cautiously; it names an aspiration, not an occupation. In other words: not a noun for a passport.” I agree, and yet: sometimes it seems silly not to acknowledge where the hours go, what they’re lost to. If I fail, I fail at this. It seems worth noting—at times. And if the pleasure I derive from reading poems, teaching poems, talking about poems, publishing, writing about, editing, even trying to write them myself…. If part of the pleasure and meaning that comes from that comes from being able to say I do this, I am someone who does this—well, what else should we do? I think of Frost: “Earth’s the right place for love:/I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” We’re here. Let’s make the most of it. You can read the other sections of this essay here: Part 1 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Continue reading
Posted Sep 18, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
“I had yet to share in the communal sense-making procedures (the horizon of expectation, the interpretive community, what have you) that would make this text readable.” -- Maureen McLane on Frank O’Hara, from My Poets I’ve been stuck on community lately—community expectations, the promise of meaning, what it means and what it takes to write a poem. Poetry’s a funny business. We work with a relatively marginal art form that seems to insist on its centrality. And one that, while requiring the fewest possible resources for its creation, seems to require more than most from its audience to succeed. A bit more on that last part: poems ask us to participate—to give voice, make our bodies into their instrument*. They come to us (for the most part) waving their white space, their apparent emptiness-but-for-us. They so often seem encoded, and sometimes are. And books of poems are perverse, in a way; their design asks us to move forward even as the individual poems insist that they aren’t done. Go. Stay. It helps for me to have someone else who keeps me there—some imagined or eventual friend or stranger or student who will hear what I have to say about this, if I have anything to say. I like poems better when I’m going to teach them or write about them or share them with a friend. That’s not the case—not necessarily—if I read a novel or watch a movie or listen to a song. The subject—community, poetry, identity—matters to me for a lot of reasons. I’m an introvert. I’m not a very good joiner. I do a lot of my poetry work in imaginary communities, online. I’m prone to a particular kind of despair—the feeling that things should matter, but don’t. And I have a hard time convincing myself that what I write, or might write, in a poem might matter, while at the same time having a hard time feeling my life matters if I don’t write (and somehow, prose doesn’t count.) You’ve presumably come here because you care about poems—not all of them I assume, but maybe enough that you care about poetry, too. That’s where I’ll start tomorrow, with the broadest applicable community—poetry people—and my ambivalence about being one of them. You can read the other sections of this essay here: Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 *I'm indebted to Robert Pinsky for this idea. Continue reading
Posted Sep 17, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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Sep 15, 2012