Clockwise from top left: Luis Urrea, Sherman Alexie, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Dobyns, August Kleinzahler
When I see a young woman in a bookstore self-help section, poring over books that purport to explain men to women, I want to take her arm and trot her over to the poetry. I want to take down, say, August Kleinzahler’s Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow and turn to “Pieces of Summer” and read aloud:
On the subway escalator,
pants snug as the skin of half-ripe pears
In pastel rooms all through this melting world
love-thoughts, like cuttings,
have begun to take...
I want to hand her Robert Hass’s Sun Under Wood and turn to “Happiness,” and show this: “We woke early this morning, / and lay in bed kissing, / our eyes squinched up like bats.”
Another very different book I’d pull off the shelf and hand to a young woman is by 30-year-old Sherman Alexie. A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who describes himself as “Indian” rather than “Native American,” Alexie titled his first collection First Indian on the Moon. One of my favorite poems from that book is “I Would Steal Horses.”
I would steal horses
for you, if there were any left,
give a dozen of the best
to your father, the auto mechanic
in the small town where you were born
and where he will die in the dark.
I am afraid of his hands, which have
rebuilt more of the small parts
of this world than I ever will.
I would offer my sovereignty, take
every promise as your final lie, the last
point before we start refusing the exact.
I would wrap us both in old blankets
hold every disease tight against our skin.
Why I want to guide that self-help reader to poetry is that men’s poems are where women can find out about men. Men’s poems are the shoeboxes where men hide their secrets. Men’s poems are where men tell the truth about how they feel about women.
Men don’t seem as burdened with feelings as do women. Nor do they seem to fall in love as hard with women as women do with men. They don’t seem to pine and long and carry on like we do. But I think in feet that they turn as head-over-heels as we do, and if we’re the one who says good-bye, they wet down as many handkerchiefs with tears.
I got my first hint of this when I was a madly-in-love, just-turned-teenager. I don’t remember the boy, except that he was blond and tall and sat at the same scarred lab table with me in freshman science, but I do remember the poem. It was by Conrad Aiken and it began:
Music I heard with you was more than
And bread I broke with you was more
Now that I am without you, all is
All that was once so beautiful is dead.
Now I realize the Aiken poem is fusty, that it’s so sappy and mawkish you might find it printed on one of those fans they used to hand out in Midwestern funeral parlors in the days before air conditioning. I don’t care. I love it now because I loved it then. And what I loved about that poem, apart from the pleasure of the words in the mouth, was how clearly it told me that men’s hearts get broken too.
I thought it would be interesting to call male poets whose work I liked and ask them about poems they’d written about women and love and love’s loss. I often felt quite shy and silly doing this, but curiosity got me to dial.
I spoke to Sherman Alexie, who was at home in Seattle. I asked him about the occasion of the poem I quoted above. Alexie told me that he wrote this for his girlfriend at the time. “She was white, and her father didn’t approve the relationship. I always felt like I was stealing her. It always felt like a crime. I tried to write a poem that would make the crime seem honorable and noble. Stealing horses was a way of asserting your manhood in horse culture, so I made this horsestealing an equivalent to stealing this woman from her family and her father.”
Alexie told me that since high school, he had written poems for women. Did he show his poems to the women? “Yes,” he said. “Absolutely.”
Forty-seven-year-old August Kleinzahler, a swatch from whose poem I quoted above, normally makes his home in San Francisco. Author of Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow, as well as three other volumes of poetry, Kleinzahler teaches from time to time at various universities. I asked Kleinzahler if he were married, single, or divorced.
Kleinzahler described himself in raspy basso as “Single. I’ve always been. Most of my adult life I’ve lived domestically with women for four years, seven years, whatever. I’ve been married several times but never in the eyes of God.”
I asked Kleinzahler if when he was a boy, he wrote love poems.
“Sure. But I didn’t have that many people to write them about or give them to. So a lot of them were, I think, about longing to be in love. But for the most part, I was too inhibited or shy if I was with someone to do such a bold thing and say, ‘I’m going to write a love poem,’ and then do it and hand it over.” For Kleinzahler, it’s hard to say whether falling in or out of love has given him more poems. But on the morning we talked, Kleinzahler confessed that “between the two, I’ve gotten quite a lot of material.”
I read to him from his poem “Visits.”
You were beautiful just then,
your face naked, luminous with feeling
for him and the sorrow you sensed in his life,
an adoring trance —when I looked up,
and right on top of us the radio tower,
soaring a thousand feet, its red beacon
pulsing across the sky.
I asked what the occasion of that poem was.
“I remember the moment,” he said. “This was a lady friend from Brazil who was visiting San Francisco. And at this point we were friends. We’d been a little bit involved romantically, briefly, some time before, but we had a great affection for each other which continued. And I didn’t know if we were going to see each other again because our orbits were moving strange ways. We were speaking to one another on this occasion, very frankly, very openly, very much from the heart.
“She was speaking about her brother and quite beyond the subject of what she was talking about; suddenly, her emotions were so open. It sounds coy, but what I saw in that moment was an inner beauty radiating out And that’s what I was talking about.” I had open in front of me Kleinzahler’s Red Sauce, Whiskey, and Snow. I asked about the book’s first poem, “Land’s End.”
you say, feels as if it hasn’t touched land
for a thousand miles,
as surf sound washes through scrub
whether ocean or wind in the trees
or both: the park’s big windmill
while joggers circle the ball field
only a few yards off
this path secreted in growth and mist,
the feel of a long narrow theater set
about it here on the park’s eastern edge
just in from the highway
then the moody swells of the Pacific.
The way the chill goes out of us
and the sweat comes up
as we drive back into the heat
and how I need to take you
to all the special places, or show
you where the fog rolls down
and breaks apart in these hills or where
that gorgeous little piano bridge
comes halfway through the song,
because when what has become dormant,
meager or hardened
passes through the electric
of you, the fugitive scattered pieces
are called back to their nature —
light pouring through muslin
in a strange, bare room.
Kleinzahler offered, “This poem is a flat-out love poem, a falling-in-love poem about the newness of an affair’s beginning.” Kleinzahler explained that the woman is speaking. “It’s her line I’m taking. She said, This air feels as if it hasn’t touched land for a thousand miles.’ I’m quoting her. It was a beautiful and very unguarded natural description of the air in San Francisco. It’s cool and foggy and fresh, and so were we at that point.”
Did Kleinzahler show this poem to the woman?
“I had said to her, before I wrote it, ‘I’m going to write you a beautiful love poem.’ She giggled.” The poem, he said, didn’t immediately get written. “One has to wait for the divine afflatus or whatever.... Also, I try to be fairly accurate in terms of places and what I’m doing and what we’re doing and not invent them. Because I think life is more interesting and peculiar than what we invent. When I had the pieces together, I set out to do it. But it took me a long time, because there were technical problems, trying to find an ending and so forth.”
When Kleinzahler gave his new beloved the poem, she seemed, he thought, “a little overwhelmed.” He was not surprised. “I think it sometimes is a little overwhelming for the recipient. Because you’re almost mythologizing the relationship.”
I asked Kleinzahler if he ever wrote poems for women with whom he was involved that he did not submit for publication, simply because the poem is too personal.
“I wrote one the other day. And you’ve caught me out Sometimes relationships are complicated, and you don’t want to embarrass somebody. But usually my poems, as a rule, are rather oblique. Also time passes. It takes me five years or so, and by that time often much has been forgotten, and people have moved on to other things. So I can publish. I can’t recall one that I haven’t.”
Poet and novelist Stephen Dobyns, born in 1941 when Conrad Aiken was already in middle age, has a poem — “Letter Beginning With the First Line of Your Letter” — that makes the same plaint made by the Aiken poem that I liked so as a teenager — a lover’s absence. But Dobyns’s poem talks about this absence in a way that does not make you think of funeral home fans. The poem’s narrator is “envying each destination. / Because you are not here, I think of you / everywhere; wherever they are going / they must be going to you.”
I like particularly to talk to Dobyns about poetry, in part because when he talks about poems, he also talks about how to lead your life. Dobyns is married to a woman he’s known for 20 years. I asked Dobyns about long marriages and poetry.
“When I was younger,” he said, “and seeing different women, there was the ecstatic poem that came out of infatuation. And it is easier, yes, to do the infatuation poems about the unattainable love, because they’re poems of yearning. And they’re poems of the fireworks.” Dobyns added, “But infatuation is like a drug; it’s a great pleasure. Sometimes it turns into something deeper, but mostly it drifts away, and you dash off to your next infatuation. After a while this becomes tiresome; there’s no future in infatuation. What becomes more important is intimacy, getting to know a person, the way you peel an onion, while you, yourself, are being peeled.”
I asked Dobyns what he thought were some of the great poems of married love. “Neruda,” he said, “first of all. His poems for his wife. It was a subject that he came to, again and again. He has whole books of poems. For this woman.”
At the other extreme, Dobyns said, from poems of married love were the poems written for the unattainable woman. “Like Yeats’s poems for Maud Gonne and Dante’s for Beatrice.”
Did Dobyns remember when he first wrote a poem for a girl? “In high schooL”
And what did he do with the poem?
“I certainly didn’t show it to her. It was something that I used, I’m sure, to crank up my own enthusiasm and to have a sense of the extreme seriousness of my emotional endeavor. I think I’ve always been shy of presenting poems to women, and often I have not.”
I asked if Dobyns thought it easier to “get” poems when you were newly in love or you’d just broken up.
“Well, you’re jarred into writing by emotional experience.” Dobyns directed me to a poem in his Velocities: New and Selected Poems, 1966-1992, “Footstep,” from the book Heat Death. The poem begins with this: “Each evening the man whose wife has gone / reads the paper with his back to the window. / She died in winter: cancer or a car sliding/ wildly out of control — the cause doesn’t matter.”
“That poem,” he said, “was a poem about breaking up with somebody. The woman had broken up with me. A woman I’d lived with. And I transferred that feeling to something else. I created a narrative, as it were, to explain that feeling. But there are three poems in Heat Death that center around this person. One is ‘Rain Song,’ and the other is ‘Letter Beginning With the First Line of Your Letter.’ ”
I said that I would never have guessed at the autobiographical underpinnings of these poems.
“You try,” said Dobyns, “and take a poem out of its particular occasion and raise it to some larger occasion.”
Had there been in Dobyns’s life a series of muses, of women who had provoked poems?
“I don’t think so, not in terms of their being a specific person. There is a sense, though, of ‘muse.’ I’m sure any writer knows this. Where do the images come from? There are many times that I can be writing along and then get stuck, and turn my head, and then suddenly the words are in my head. How do they get there? I don’t believe in these things being communicated from the ‘other side,’ as it were.
“But there’s a relationship to the unconscious that I don’t understand. How, for instance, that part of the mind is able to come up with metaphor. You learn to listen to that, or be attentive to that There are certain signals within myself that something like that is in the offing. There are ways that I even prepare for it — by reading other poems or by trying to think in terms of metaphor. That sounds kind of arcane, but basically by reading other poems.
“I think that you have to have a center in order to write. You have to have a sense of hope. However dark my poems may become or be, if they were nihilistic, I would never bother writing So there’s a kind of muse that is just the center spirit of life. I think all the evidence is against us, but we still keep moving forward.”
Were there poems that Dobyns had written to women that he would never submit for publication because these poems were too personal?
“Yes. A poem has to transcend the writer and leave the writer’s life and enter a kind of public life. And sometimes there are love poems that are so occasional, as it were, that they could never do that Nor would I necessarily want them to.”
When Dobyns had given a poem to a woman for whom he’d written it, what was it like to talk to her about the poem?
“Well, you’re trying to move to a different level of intimacy. We’re constantly limited by our language, and we have these complicated feelings and complicated ideas. And the language that we use to express them in conversation is a great diminishment of that complexity. In art, ideally, or in a poem, ideally, you have a much lesser degree of diminishment because so much is working within the poem to communicate both the meaning of the words and the rhythm of the words and the form of the poem. All these things are coming together to decrease the level of diminishment And ideally the poem becomes a kind of event on the page. So with metaphor you’re reenacting an experience. And ideally the person who’s being addressed can re-experience it as well. So that becomes part of the love affair, it becomes part of the passion. Becomes part of the enactment of emotion.”
Did Dobyns think it difficult for women to live with poets?
“I think it can be. Sure because they can be very volatile. One reason I write novels is to give a structure to my life, to give a pattern to my life, which it doesn’t have when I’m simply writing poems. Because I’m either waiting desperately to write a poem or I’m high on the act of writing, and so I’m constantly going up and down, up and down.
“And a poet, male or female, also has to protect his or her childlike nature. There has to be a way that the person still feels wonder. As we grow older, we put aside wonder, or we trade in our wonder, for a sense of consequence. Because if you don’t have that sense of consequence, I mean, you just get burned too oftea So you give it up, you turn it in, you think. I’m just not strong enough to carry this with me anymore And that’s very hard.
“So ideally, a poet has to maintain some of that wonder, which creates a certain volatile personality or can. I also know poets who run from relationship to relationship to keep that emotional high that feeds the muse and allows them to write ecstatic poems. I kind of disapprove of that, although the poems may be just as good. But there’s a degree of irresponsibility to that, which doesn’t decrease them as a poet But you think this certainly makes a difficult human being. It makes you, if you come into that person’s life, just somebody that they’re using. Just a figure on their little stage.”
Only once did a boy write me a poem. Were I to get up the nerve to lead that young woman from self-help to poetry, one book I’d likely hand her is Valentine Place by David Lehman. Why, in part, I would hand her Lehman’s book is that many of the poems were written to an actress—Monique—with whom Lehman was long involved. The poems portray such glamour that whenever I read them, I can’t help but envy the delicious Monique. In “Dark Passage,” Lehman writes, “he missed her / And her habit of bumming cigarettes, showing up late, / Looking rich.” And here again is Monique in “Sixth Sense;” “Wearing the blue polka-dot dress he’d given her, / With the pearl choker and the sapphire earrings, / Holding a Kir Royale. He looked at her left hand. / No ring. And knew he had to get out of there / Fast, before one of them did something irrevocable....”
Lehman, born in New York City in 1948, is the author of three books of poems, including Valentine Place. Lehman is also editor and founder of the series The Best American Poetry, now in its tenth year. Lehman, divorced, is single.
Monique was also the inspiration for “Who She Was,” another of my Valentine Place favorites. The poem opens with this:
She loved jumping on the trampoline.
Her nickname was Monkey.
She slipped her tongue in his mouth when they kissed.
I asked Lehman about this poem. He said, “I wrote it in September of 1993 when I was very deeply involved with Monique, with whom I began living shortly afterward. I lived with her for a couple of years.
“When Monique and I were living together, it was understood that she wanted me to write a poem each time she had an opening night. The convention in the theater is to send flowers on opening night. And writing a poem did not absolve me of this other responsibility, but since I did write a poem for her first opening night, that became a convention. This did not seem like a terrible demand. Because there’s nothing I like doing in life more than writing poems.”
Monique, Lehman said, “enjoyed being the muse.” Lehman went on to explain that in many poems, together with biographical or autobiographical facts and details, he also uses “some facts or details that are completely made up and some that are borrowed from something I’ve seen or read. Monique is a very sophisticated person. She’s an actress and so quite capable of seeing how a poem is an entity, completely independent, and not necessarily faithful to the facts, but still reflective of this or that about us. In that sense, too, she was a particularly wonderful muse figure.”
Lehman said that he found he liked to “write about women in the way that a painter would be drawn to paint pictures of women, the way that Picasso does or Matisse does. I also like creating a female character who is really me in disguise. I guess maybe I’m giving away a secret, but sometimes I find that one can create a character just by taking that character and inverting the person’s sex. I’ve tried to do that in part in order to see things from this other point of view and to understand it better.
“Secrecy has an important place in poetry. Metaphor by definition is a fiction, an untruth. So we are constantly writing poetry in which real things are presented in some disguise. One of the greatest grammatical opportunities in the language is the word ‘you’ because you can use the word ‘you’ and keep the identity of the person you’re writing to or about a secret. The secret is also nice because the person to whom you’re writing has that pleasure, that intimacy, and at the same time, the poem can be read aloud, and any reader can feel that they are either the writer of the poem or the recipient of the poem.
“And love, of course, is a great subject, adultery is a great subject, romance is a great subject, sex is a great subject. I like to write about all that But I feel that in the recent past, the only time you would find sex in poetry by men, or perhaps by anyone, was in the Charles Bukowski mode — you know, ‘She wanted me to fuck her and I did.’ And it seems to me that now one can write about sex with candor and truth and that you can also restore romance to sex. You can write tenderly without being less masculine, and you don’t have to be quite as crude. Not that I’m putting that down. But it used to be that the options were limited. You’d have T.S. Eliot holding his nose at the female stench. Or you’d have Bukowski in the Henry Miller mode, and there wasn’t much else going on in writing about sex.”
No one frightened me more to telephone out of the blue than Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur, born in 1921. I had read his poems for years. I said that I was interested in men’s poems about women, that I was interested in his poems first because I had been sustained for many years by several of them, and second, because I couldn’t think of any living American poet who had been married longer than he. Wilbur, from his home in Key West, said that he and his wife Charlotte, more familiarly known as “Charlee,” were “in danger of having a 55th anniversary next year, which really does sound improbable to us as to everyone else. But I don’t think I have the distinction of having been married the longest. I think that goes to Richard Eberhart, who’s now in his 90s. I cannot remember just when Dick got married, but his marriage was a long one; his wife died several years ago.”
I said that I thought Eberhart married later in life, to which Wilbur responded, “Perhaps he did. At any rate, it was a sustained performance.”
I said that I found Wilbur’s poem “Transit" a gorgeous description of a woman. I read the poem to him from his New and Collected Poems.
A woman I have never seen before
Steps from the darkness of her town-house door
At just that crux of time when she is made
So beautiful that she or time must fade.
What use to claim that as she tugs her gloves
A phantom heraldry of all the loves
Blares from the lintel? That the staggered sun
Forgets, in his confusion, how to run?
Still, nothing changes as her perfect feet
Click down the walk that issues in the street,
Leaving the stations of her body there
As a whip maps the countries of the air.
Wilbur turned almost apologetic. “That isn’t directly based on my wife, though I suppose that almost any poem with a woman in it has some of my wife in it That’s really not avoidable, is it, after a rather good marriage of some period?”
I asked about the occasion of the poem.
“I think, really, that all I know about it now is pretty much what the poem itself says. I think that the place was Boston. And that I saw a beautiful woman stepping out of the door of a town house, town house in the original sense, that is, a house that was really in the city there, and that had a little walk coming down to the common sidewalk. And just that glimpse, that very brief glimpse was what made for the poem. 1 simply brooded upon the image of that woman.
“Sometimes after I’ve read that poem to audiences, people will come up afterwards and say, ‘Is it all right to think in the last line there of Duchamp’s painting, Nude Descending a Staircase?’ And I say, ‘Yes, indeed, it’s exactly that kind of thing. A succession. Although I must say Duchamp’s painting is not very physical, but it is a succession of postures. And that’s what I had in mind.’ ”
I said I was interested in how much “Transit” changes from the first line to the last.
“I think that some of the painfulness that’s always associated with great beauty gets into the poem as it goes along, until finally there are words which have overtones of pain.”
I said that “Transit” is also very seductive in its musicality.
Wilbur said that he found he enjoyed reading “Transit” to audiences. “When I first began writing poems, 1 often really didn’t have in mind the speakability of them. I sometimes produced dreadful clots of consonants. But that one you can get your tongue around. Mine have gotten more and more this way, of course, because I’ve written so much for the theater, translating Moliere and Racine and writing Broadway lyrics. If you do that sort of thing, pro-nounceability is very important and gets to be second nature.”
Wilbur, with Lillian Hellman, John Latouche, and Dorothy Parker, was librettist for Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. I asked if he’d ever written a poem for Hellman.
“I wrote a couple of little, light jingles for her when I gave her a little book of Colette’s for a birthday present. I remember writing a little poem in it. And once I wrote a very light poem about some impending operation she had for the removal of a polyp from her mouth. She was a terrific smoker. And so she had to have operations from time to time to correct the situation. The poems were sort of pleasant light verse. I never thought of writing a heavy poem for Lillian, though we think of her chiefly as a dramatist and as a rather tough lady.”
I wanted to ask Wilbur about his small poem, “A Shallot.” I mentioned that when Mrs. Wilbur and I had talked, earlier that day, to set up a time to talk with him, that she had said the poem was about her.
The full cloves
Of your buttocks, the convex
Curve of your belly, the curved
Cleft of your sex —
Out of this corm
That’s planted in strong thighs
The slender stem and radiant
“The title,” Wilbur said, “really does take off from her name, Charlotte, and it also derives from the fact that I’m a demon herb and vegetable gardener and familiar with plants and how they’re constructed.
“When I published that poem, I thought, ‘What is my mother going to think?’ I was very amused to learn from my wife that when my mother read it, the only thing she had to say was that I was very observant. So I was pleased. Because I don’t really think that it’s a smutty poem at all. It’s just rather direct. And of course, at the end of it, with that slender stem and the radiant flower, it begins to suggest the other end and more transcendent aspects of woman.”
Did Wilbur recall when he wrote his first poem to a woman?
“My first poem to a woman was written way back when I was at Amherst College and my wife was at Smith. When I first met her, I began to send her poems. Those poems are all rather fortunately lost. But I know that she was the person who got me started on that”
Was his wife his muse?
“Yes, indeed I know that I’ve come to see the many aspects of woman through my wife, though she’s not mentioned in those poems, that’s where the poems come from.”
I mentioned what Stephen Dobyns had said about the poems of intimacy, the poems that come from long relationships. How would Wilbur describe the latter?
“They’re likely to have both enchantment and a little bit of comedy in them. If there’s luck in it, they can still have a lot of the original enchantment, as 1 think, for example, Frost poems do. I don’t think he ever lost that. At least I find that a poem of mine, like ‘The Catch’ or a poem like ‘Complaint,’ has its touches of humor. They are part, I guess, of any long-standing and balanced view of things. Also, sometimes one finds oneself writing poems about the limits of love; even good love, even a perfect marriage can’t do everything, can’t be a whole life.”
Poets, I said must be very difficult to live with.
“I think so,” said Wilbur. “I know that without being a particularly brutish or unpleasant man, I am. I spend a lot of time by myself. I spend a lot of time in my study or in some other place inside my head, and that’s hard for any woman to accept sometimes. My wife has always just wonderfully abetted that necessity in me.”
Luis Alberto Urrea was born in 1955 in Tijuana to an American mother and Mexican father. Urrea grew up in Logan Heights, attending St. Jude’s Academy, Marston Junior High School, and Clairemont High School. He graduated from the University of California San Diego in 1977. In “Man’s Fate,” Urrea writes about the day his marriage of seven years ended:
And then one day you get up
and she’s gone,
And the burns on the pots
remind you. And her forgotten
cream underpants in the dreamdust
under the bed remind you.
Urrea talked about the occasion of this poem: “Coming home and finding my wife gone and all the beds stripped and everything gone. I came home and the house was dark, and she wasn’t around, and I turned on the lamp, and I turned on the television and was sitting there, and I thought, ‘Huh, why are so many CDs gone?’
“I started walking through the house and found that all the stuff was gone. And that’s really a poem about that moment when you realize that something so terrible has happened, and you have to find some way to go on, but you don’t know how. There’s this terrible thing that’s happened, and you realize perhaps too late all that you’ve lost.
“When she was gone, of course, it all first meant betrayal, and then it all meant grief, and then suddenly it started to mean freedom, liberation. But that poem is about those early moments when you can’t bear it.
“This poem was written about the horror of all that. I’ve always been a detail man. I’m devastated by pointless little details because none of them are pointless. You know every button, every little comb, every tweezer has all these stories attached to it And it drives me crazy sometimes because I feel like I’m caught in an avalanche of story and incident Everything, everything resonates and tells another story. So I have to shut it out or I’ll go nuts.
“I’m with someone now that is really wonderful for me. I used to have relationships that were like forest fires. There was nothing left. Nothing. I’m learning. Perhaps turning 40 did it for me. I find there’s a new voice coming out in my work. Something I never expected.”
When Urrea wrote poems to women, did he give the poems to the women?
“You bet. I hate to admit this, but that’s how I started writing. I was the poet of Clairemont High. I learned that it was an astonishing way to meet girls. Of course, I wanted to express myself, but I found that this communication with girls was so amazing. I knew, very early on, that to me the greatest thing that could ever happen was to put my lips against their lips. I want to take the highroad, but since we’re on the low road, I was on babe patrol; I wanted girlfriends.”
Did Urrea think poets made difficult mates?
He did. Urrea suggested that poets can act “as the culture’s hired raw nerve. They feel everything —good and bad—for the rest of us, and then report it back. Good and bad. Unfortunately, we are seldom, I think, as good as our art. I think that the reality of an imperfect and sometimes pretty awful human being who happened to create beautiful art is a shocking thing to deal with. 1 know so many people who have fallen in love with an artist and found that they’d made a terrible, terrible mistake. So I always tell people, ‘Don’t mistake the writing for the person.’ ”
When Dylan Thomas toured America in the 1950s, women tended to throw themselves at him and try, with and without success, to bed with him. A significant number of other male poets, during the 1950s and 1960s, tended to elicit similar responses from women. I asked Stephen Dobyns if poets still drew women to them in that way. Dobyns didn’t think so.
“There are other poets that have had that reputation, even among contemporary poets. I think that this response is connected to the mystical idea that the poet is connected somehow to something in the cosmos, something in the ether, that he or she, I suppose, is a kind of superperson. And I think that amongst my generation now there’s so much more emphasis often on craft and of the very making that that kind of angelic divinity, or Orphic stance, doesn’t exist or doesn’t come across.”
Dobyns went on to say that he did know poets of his generation that talk about “using the energy of relationships with women to write poems. In the same way that Rilke would. Rilke would often begin a romantic relationship, and then instead of finalizing it, as it were, in the sexual act, he would turn away to use the energy for his writing. Leaving a certain number of disappointed women.
“But I think it’s changed. There’s just not that emphasis on the shaman, on the Orphic, really. The whole idea of the Orphic is just not in favor right now. 1 think there’s much more of a sense that a poem is something made.”
I asked Richard Wilbur about the “old days,” when women threw themselves at Dylan Thomas in much the same way that bobbysoxers threw themselves at Frank Sinatra.
“Dylan,” Wilbur said, “was thought to be a kind of priapic figure. Though I don’t think he took a whole lot of advantage of it He was really more attached to the beer bottle than to anything else. But most certainly he had his following. What do they call it? ‘Groupies.’ Yes, Dylan had his groupies. And I think that poets, generally, who aren’t positively ugly do tend to attract that kind of thing.”
I said that it seemed to me that while some women who attended readings still tried to attract the attention of a poet, that these flirtations did seem less common now.
Wilbur didn’t disagree. “I suppose there’s a lot more general conservatism about sex at present or a lot more fear, caution. I must say, when I look back to the latter 1940s, early 1950s, it was a good deal more orgiastic than the life of poetry now. And of course in those days, because of the Dylan Thomas precedent, there was a kind of expectation that if you were any kind of a poet, you would arrive late and drunk. And that’s not much admired anymore.”
I said that perhaps 40 and 50 years earlier, readers regarded the poet as more of an Orphic figure than they did now.
“Yes, and I suppose actually that poetry generally has become less Orphic and more prosaic. The period poem of today, what you get by opening a magazine, is likely to be, however talented, however interesting, rather low-key and of this world. No, our rather direct prosaic, free-verse poets are not going to be confused with prophets.”
But even now, in larger cities, where there are poetry readings somewhere almost every evening, I see many women, particularly younger women, come to these readings. When male poets read, women of every age line up to say a few words to the poet and to have him sign their book. The women’s faces inevitably seem almost illumined. I heard Sherman Alexie read at a bookstore. After the reading, women formed at the table where he was signing his book. Later, I asked him what he thought drew women to poets. He answered immediately. “Women are attracted to men who connect with their emotions. And communicate that connection in a way that’s visceral and immediate, which is something I think most men lack the ability to do. I think, though, the thing that is the very best of us is on the page. In real life, we as writers are just as messy and sloppy as every other guy.” He added that when he first met his wife, she had a rival for his affections. “The other guy was not a poet. Poems work.”
Luis Urrea said, about his readings, “I’ve got the gift of gab, so when I get up there now, it’s part tent revival meeting and part stand-up comic. And I’ve realized that that’s very powerful. By the nature of the way the thing works out, what I say is usually quite funny. But as you know, my poems are not. So they cry and they laugh, and somehow the combination of those two things is extremely powerful. There’s a desire for human connection.
“I have talked about this with several poets, that you have the option to either love your audience or seduce your audience, and you can get laid all the time, if you want to. After my readings, women come up to me and start confessing the most outrageous things.
“I think that often what happens is that a reader or listener is so moved by the piece or by the body of work, that he or she some-times suspects that the writer might be touched with grace. I remember when I was young and broke in San Diego and desperate to have a life, and I couldn’t imagine how to do it, the Luis of today would have seemed like the most blessed and exotic creature on earth to the Luis of then. He can take airplanes, he gets driven around, he has published books and signs autographs, and he’s up there in the limelight and he’s meeting people. I meet a lot of women whom I think are feeling much of what I felt, back then, women who are full of a longing for a life, a longing to express themselves, a longing to have contact with that thing that they think is some kind of a blessing, this thing that has singled the writer, who’s up onstage, out from the rest of us. Also, there’s usually a strong subtext of longing and hope for some sort of transcendence and ‘save me.’ I felt that when I was struggling.”
Urrea said, “I get a lot of mail from readers. I have even gotten some nude pictures. I haven’t gotten any nude pictures recently, but I’ve gotten some pretty nude letters. Not long ago, after a reading, a woman asked me to sign her bare breast. I don’t think it was because I am some sort of sex god, because I’m not. I think that what she was looking for was a kind of strange secular blessing that readers feel has singled out the writer.
“I see this again and again. This longing for the blessing. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they say that people have a God-shaped hole in the middle of their hearts. I think that’s really true. Whatever we understand God to be, or the sacred, or the good, people want it. And they don’t have any way to get it I think that sometimes, particularly with these women fans who offer you sex, that sex is all they feel they’ve got to trade.”
Urrea said that a fellow poet had received a pair of panties in the mail from a fan. “I know it sounds insane to say to somebody, ‘When a woman sends her underwear, she’s calling out for God.’ But I think poets often touch people in a way that is so deep that I think the people you touch don’t really have the language to get at it. It’s very intoxicating, and it feels like a blessing. So that I think that on some level the woman who wanted me to autograph her breast, the woman who mailed panties, both are calling out, if not for God, then for grace. For a blessing.”