The Strange Hours Travelers Keep
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux; November 2003; 98 pages; $22
Poems have a life of their own, like the more intense forms of sexual love. It is no coincidence that both find themselves associated with particular gods in classical antiquity. Both transcend the ordinary human realm where situation, character, will, and intellect play a determining role. When entering into this otherworldly realm, one is tapping into a large, usually destructive force that August Kleinzahler m0cks our needs and wishes, as well as whatever notions we have of what is real or good or true. It is ordinarily not to one’s advantage to enter into this realm. Literature and mythology are full of cautionary tales: Western, Eastern, African, Amerindian, you name it. They’re certainly not going to teach you about it in college, nor are you likely to hear it discussed on NPR or the network news or Fox. Perhaps on one of the less-visited cable channels... All of which means: none of it is any good for you but is quite the thrill, regardless.
I dislike writing about my poetry, much as I dislike talking about sex, except in the abstract. Besides, that’s what they pay professors and graduate students for, and the former are getting paid far too much for what, in retrospect, has been a shameful track record in appraising contemporary poetry. In part, this is because the more serious academic critics are adhering to historical models that are no longer relevant, nor have they been for a generation, if ever. In part, it’s a result of the academy’s isolation from the street, where poetry, historically, has always gone to reinvigorate itself, tapping into the cadences, syntax, diction, and tonalities of English as it is spoken by ordinary men and women. The music of poetry dwells somewhere between heightened speech and the looser forms of song structure with its repeated motifs and various kinds of closure.
The larger problem, as I see it — at least in the immediate, localized context — is that American poetry has been subsumed by the Creative Writing Corporation of America, a $250 million business operating along the lines of a pyramid scheme and based on the notion that anyone can write a poem if they only enroll in an accredited professional program and achieve an MFA degree. It’s all a bit like those magazine ads I remember from many years ago (perhaps they’re still out there), where a square-jawed business type points aggressively at the reader, with a caption underneath reading: “Yes, you too can become a millionaire!” Now, it so happens that there are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of millionaires in America. There aren’t a dozen poets now writing whose work will be read 50 years from now, if anyone is still reading.
Here’s the deal: Poetry no longer exists as a vital branch of culture in this country, as it does, say, in Ireland or Japan. When you see a poem in The New Yorker, to give one example, it’s there: (1) to break up the page; and (2) as a gesture, a sop to those who associate the idea of poetry with highbrow culture and class.
Therefore, nature being what it is, the best and brightest are not going to be writing poetry or about poetry. They may, in a few instances, be writing about the novel or, more likely, movies, but likelier still not writing at all, at least beyond the functional, e-mail-style prose of the moment. You will probably find the talent that used to go into poetry, among other arts, in an area where culture, art, and politics (and almost always a denatured, capsulized version of each) interface with commerce. Most, I suspect, are now drawn to the Internet, where these kinds of interfaces proliferate and institutional constraints and conventions are at a minimum, for good or ill.
I’m not sure how many neurosurgeons there are now actively practicing in the United States. Surely thousands, perhaps a number equivalent to those millionaires currently knocking around. I suspect it must be very demanding to become a neurosurgeon. There’s university, usually involving a demanding pre-med curriculum. There’s medical school, no picnic no matter how abysmal its reputation. There’s internship and residency. Then there are the years of developing as a doctor, a diagnostician, a surgeon. Ninety percent of neurosurgeons are only adequate, or less than adequate, at what they do; that is, if they’re like any other profession.
If you pick up a saxophone and try to play it, you’ll find that you’re unable to get any sound out of it other than something like a cross between a baby’s burble and a fart. If you purchase a how-to book or, better still, get hold of a teacher, in a week or two you may be able to play a tolerable version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” You can practice 10 hours a day for 30 years, and you might arrive at a journeyman’s skill on the instrument; good enough to maybe sit in with a second-rate band playing dinner clubs out in the suburbs. The odds of your becoming a Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane are one in tens of millions. You’d have a better chance of winning the lottery, getting struck by lightning, and being elected President of the United States in the same day.
Imagine, for a moment, if we took American poetry as seriously as we take college and professional football; if we applied the same standards to poets and scholars that we apply to NFL and Division I players and coaches. Half the slobs who phone up sports radio know more about defensive schemes and personnel adjustments on any given weekend that your average MFA knows about not just poetry and literature, but about anything at all.
So why persist at all? Why pour one’s best energies into it when the art seems to be in such terrible decline, when the traditionally small readership of a few hundred or so has been reduced to perhaps a few dozen?
Because it’s a thrill. When all the cylinders are firing, it’s better than sex, even very good sex, and writing a poem resembles nothing else in nature so much as sex, which is why Eros and the creative act have been complicit since people have been falling madly in love and struggling to express their exhilaration and despair. Poets tend to be addicted to Eros, an especially destructive and wasting addiction. Bear in mind, Eros is quite a different thing from sex: Eros is sexual love. An addiction to sex is, I suspect, inconvenient, embarrassing, time-consuming, expensive — a nuisance. An addiction to Eros and poetry is a good deal more than a nuisance.
After such grand and lofty pronouncements, these two poems will probably, almost certainly, seem like paltry stuff. I apologize. They were written in San Diego a few years ago when I was on assignment for the Reader. I was suffering from a bad bout of flu at the time, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that one poem, a dream, is dead peculiar, and the other, a meditation of sorts, is rather grumpy and bleak.
I am stimulated by different environments. Coronado, for instance, was exotic to me. Had I lived there for ten years, or even two months, it would have ceased to be exotic. The poems in this most recent collection involve quite a few different locales. I was traveling a fair bit during the five years the book was written, here in the States and in Europe. I was in London and Berlin, to a lesser extent in Paris, Ireland, Italy, and Montreal. But all of these places, once passed through the solution of the imagination, become, well, as imaginary as the many purely imaginary places I visit in these poems. The literary detective or psychologist will not have to dig terribly deep in order to find that, however far flung and exotic the ports of call, at the heart of these poems is, and will always be, a provincial New Jersey boy, awonder at it all.