Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (The Force of What’s Possible—Issue 46, October 2014)

Patrick James Dunagan
What’s Poetry For, Anyways?

Among my first published collection of poems is a procedural work of lifted lines entitled The Young American Poets (showerhead press, 2000). It developed from out an assignment poet Gloria Frym gave in one of my first Poetics classes at New College of California. It was a class on forms and for the final she asked us to write a long serial poem-series. Back at the residence hotel that evening, I looked around my room and my eye fell on Paul Carroll’s anthology The Young American Poets which I’d been picking up and reading around in for quite a few months—why not structure a serial poem from off the work of the poets contained inside. I set myself the following rules: I would write one poem per poet, the title of which would be the poet’s name (the anthology is ordered alphabetically by last name, so too then, are my poems), to be comprised solely of lines from either poems by the poet in the selection included by Carroll or accompanying text concerning the poet’s biography. With the final poem I broke my own rules. Here is that poem:

Tyner White

It must make sense

Left standing with

Getting through it

At: The University

Their thumbs still

Beautiful after no

Lapse in smoking I

Don’t like it gone

Tickles your hands

Like a bushy lemon

Soap unripe window

See it glow see it

Blow a wave is his

Ticket home please

God blows the ships

Away keep Mushroom

Bathing Suites in

Love Novels’ hammer

In the night wrong

Naked again but so

What the point too

Narrow to cross it

Being India? Chess

Is played here and

Atmosphere has ate

The dirty dishware

Given up the Blues

Of Iambic Verse in

Questioning a verb

And “read my lines

While riding naked

As in diction” you

Aren’t so tuff now

Poetry World comes

Because he likes I

and I likes poetry

Tyner White is indeed the last poet in the anthology and, whilst some, perhaps most, of these lines do in fact come from the selection of his poems therein included, and/or his bio, there are a considerable number of silent alterations which have been made and some lines are wholly originally my own. I also set a rule when selecting lines unique to this one poem: when typed up on a typewriter with a standard carriage, every line ends equally spaced so that it’s a perfect column of type (note: seventeen lines in however, I did have to employ a couple of tricks, adding an extra space after “bathing” and changing “suits” to “suites”.) I’ve often felt this to be quite intentionally the most self-conscious, least cohesive, and easily accessible poem in the book. It lets the reader in on its workings. More than any of the others, this poem is looking around for conversation.

A couple of other things: Everybody isn’t a poet, no matter what gets said different. It’s now a fairly admitted observable fact that MFA programs have little to do with producing poets. Nevertheless plenty of MFA-affiliates are running around preoccupied with their own affairs, which typically include some sort of poetry-related business of publications and readings, etc. But publications and who you know do not establish your credentials up on Parnassus any more than drinking too much or smoking this and that. All that matters to poetry is poetry.

That is to say, poetry exists for the sake of poetry. All art is a conversation with itself and/or other arts. Like seeks out like, that’s life. We do the things to which we are attracted to doing and need not seek approval or the cover of discretion when doing so, unless, perhaps the actions are deemed illegal/immoral by the society we wish participate in. Whoever ultimately comes to read the work and how long it remains active, in terms of being found of use, is determined by factors beyond our individual control—or should be. Nobody in her right mind enjoys playing gods—as Pound says if five intelligent readers get it you’re lucky. The only agenda of poetry is to generate more poetry: The Company which is sought after, Crane’s “And so it was I entered the broken world/to trace the visionary company of love” as carried onwards by Creeley’s “Into the company of love/it all returns.”

Writing is a political act because as poets we serve poetry as vessels seeking out like-minded others in order to gather together with them and share communal ties and correspondences. The very same associations which bring us together lie at the base of whatever original spark lit us into action in the first place. The remarkably revolutionary-promising bit about this is the potential of connecting the dead with the living in the ghost-like instant (Derrida read through Duncan) of the infinite squared occurrence of writing reading writing reading. In this way only may it be said we are beholden to one another: each appreciates each enough to listen, congratulate, and/or challenge. (Blake: “the authors are in eternity” and “Opposition is true friendship.”) We only identify en masse ad infinitum.

Kevin Opstedal’s poem “The Art of Poetry” opens:

I was living on the 2nd floor of

a Mexican building (thick plaster walls,

stone stairways). I had to run down to meet

& smoke a cigarette w/ Duncan McNaughton

McNaughton is a poet (Tiny Windows Auguste Press 2014), author of an unpublished PhD dissertation on Shakespeare’s Sonnets which is perhaps the most sympathetically instructive reading of poetry by a poet on record. It’s worth keeping in mind all the while that poetry’s concern remains with what’s needed to get by with living. Joy and Sorrow: Ambition and Erudition. Opstedal’s poem concludes:

“I guess it must be red tide,” I said to Duncan

as an odor of rotting fish drifted up

from the motionless sea.

He made a face & said, “Well, that’s

disappointing.” I told him I was sorry

but he stopped me— “You can’t apologize

for the ocean,” he said.

I think of Spicer, “aimlessly / it pounds the shore”; I think of Browning, “quiet as despair, I turned from him” when, of course, I mean Arnold, “Begin, and cease, and then again begin,/With tremulous cadence slow, and bring/The eternal note of sadness in.”; which right away brings up Creeley echoing, “each one particular and the same—”; Pound is immediately then there, too, “And So-Shu churned in the sea, So-Shu also,/using the long moon for a churn-stick…/Lithe turning of water,/sinews of Poseidon” and “Ear, ear for the sea-surge;/rattle of old men’s voices.” I am reminded of Niedecker’s own waters, “We are what the seas/have made us/longingly immense”. Next comes Bunting, “renewed inevitable hopeless calm/and the foam dies and we again subside” who remains indifferent, implacably towering (despite himself) over at least the next few hundred years of poetry. This also brings up Jack Clarke’s anecdote:

The Tukano of the Amazon use a fishing metaphor. On the first level, when you are going fishing, you are going fishing. At level two it becomes sexual Level three brings a more serious, moral comprehension, yet without generating, as it may for us, a “collective shadow” Finally, at level four you just have these old men sitting on benches who are said to be fishing the Milky Way.

Then there’s Bishop mussing up Lowell’s hair as he moons wildly over her. The laughs begin. Whitman, Melville, Dickinson are in the wings. Poe and Hawthorne are writing down everybody’s dreams.

Poets are religious beings. (There should be nothing wrong with stating it bluntly.) Language is at play in both our work and our lives. There are no rules save where we obey each other’s call, beckoning further answers as the hall fills up. In another of my published collections of poems, Of Stone (Snag Press, 2003) I banter about with this metaphor in “There is a Great Ship/of Poetry” imagining a hall to which I have entered, full of poets’ voices from out the books I have been reading. Therein nearly every other line of the poem advances with full or near full lines from out my readings at the time. A testing of authorship but more than that a testament of how poetry functions. The ear hears and the tongue begins dart about. There’s wonder in having the books take flight about your head and the lines ask of you to recognize them, for a visual example see the cover of The Recovery of the Public World: Essays on Poetics in Honour of Robin Blaser with the photograph of Blaser at his desk and books opening as they spin mid-air about his head. It’s not unbelievable or absurd unless you’re bullshitting yourself about poetry, and that you shouldn’t do. Make no excuses and never lie. Fabricate and extend the image, but never lie. Take the world as you would have it take your poem: at its word alone.

In closing:

Doing nothing is boring.

Art is fun.

Or, rather, art is life.

Life is fun. (Or, hopefully it is.)

Art is life is fun. (Wallace Berman)

“JOY” the word for it. (Blackburn)

We are that we create.

Dec 2012

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. The Poems of Matthew Arnold. London: Longman, 1979. Print.

Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. Print.

Browning, Robert. The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Browning. New York: Macmillan, 1912. Print.

Bunting, Basil. Complete Poems. New York: New Directions, 2003. Print.

Clarke, John. From Feathers to Iron. Bolinas/San Francisco: Tombouctou/Convivio, 1987. Print.

Crane, Hart. The Complete Poems of Hart Crane. New York: Liveright, 1993. Print.

Creeley, Robert. The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. Print.

---. The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley: 1975-2005. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Print.

Niedecker, Lorine. Collected Works. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Print.

Opstedal, Kevin. California Redemption Value. New Orleans: UNO press, 2011. Print.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1996. Print.

Spicer, Jack. My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008. Print.