Auld Lang Syne

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

But how do you FEEL?

I recently read something about what poetry does to people when they read it. I am interested in this as a way to keep my head in the game when I write. I want to make sure I am creating a space for my readers. Yesterday, at lunch after poetry group, some of us had a bit of a discussion over the issue of inaccessible poetry. It is still haunting us. We pick up an anthology and get what we get, sometimes not a great experience. And while we grumble about it, we stay at the grumbling level. What is happening "out there" in poetic circles that keeps this kind of obscurity regenerating and sustaining itself? I certainly think that any kind of poetry is functional for SOME reader. It may surprise, shock, befuddle, etc. But if we are to make sure that poetry is a vibrant art, don't we need to make poems that connect with people on a wider basis, something other than in academic circles or the somewhat incestuous circles of publishing?

I think (and believe deeply) that poetry is like a marriage: takes two. If I write a poem with which no one connects, is it even a poem? (If a tree falls alone in a forest does it make a sound?) My beef is with language poetry and with some specific poets at the moment. Poets like Jorie Graham, Dara Wier, Ann Waldman, and others seem perhaps to lack a sense that it is readers whom they either reach or don't. I have heard these three poets read. I couldn't wait for the pain to stop. And what IS this thing called language poetry? Where is the notion that form makes meaning? Why would anyone want to listen to a poet scream from a stage, string together words and images that do not come out feeling like they belong together on the page or stage? I guess a deeper reason for rejecting this kind of "word salad" poetry is that it seems a bit psychotic. When I was in nursing school, we learned that word salad speech was a hallmark of mental illness. 'Nuf said.

One big issue for me is what poets can do to elicit feelings and memory and sensibilities from readers. The poetry "elite" often bash poets like Billy Collins and Maya Angelou for being too common, too working class, too public, too ordinary. They disparage them all over the place. But the truth of the matter is, people CONNECT with them and with their poems. Just sit in the audience at one of their standing room only events and listen to the comments. "I get that one" "I understand what he/she is trying to say" or "that poem makes me feel ______"
It is amazing how people who have not previously understood poetry or enjoyed it are transformed. They FEEL something. They feel included. Something common to many is not a bad thing. We want to feel part of something, feel connected to something. This is especially true now, when the whole world feels like it is falling apart at the seams. We should be able to look to our poets to make sense of things, to highlight wrongs and to comment on the world in general. We do NOT need poetry that make the chaos worse.

As a poet, I am interested in hearing from readers that my poems make them FEEL. I do not stand before readers hoping they will be impressed with me. I want to make meaning and share how I see and hear and experience the world in which we all live. I want to unveil a few "truths" along the way and have readers get an "aha!" moment from something I share. If I can do that, I am a success. I don't have to shout or curse or demean in order to do that. It is pleasurable for readers to connect and pleasurable for me to see the connections happen before my very eyes at readings. I want to be a proletariat poet with a good vocabulary.

Now, having said that, I am also interested in how I FEEL (and all poets) when writing, after a poem is on the page, and when a poem is struggling to come forward onto the page. What does it feel like in the head, the body? Is there a visceral moment? I am very aware most of the time, and not so much some of the time. A good poet friend and mentor, Jim McKean, once said to me that the visceral feeling, the buzz in the head is "being in the zone." Of course he, former fabulous basketball player, would use a sports metaphor. But in all reality, he is not far off from accurate there. It is a rarefied air we breathe when the thing is working on the page, a feeling of heat or adrenaline, or even drunkenness. I think sometimes I could run a mile without touching the ground when a poem is really cooking or when it is finished/revised and feels "just right." When this feeling takes over, it is like nothing else I feel elsewhere. It seems to me to be a feeling all its own.

I wonder now how others feel when writing or after having written. Oh sure, sometimes the feeling is sheer exhaustion. I get that too. But I'm talking about the gut, the pure feeling of something... what is it? Can I make it happen again? Will my readers experience it at all as they read/hear the poems? I think that transfer of feeling is what I want most. The Romantics knew this. Their school of thought was precisely that notion of spontaneous overflow of emotion, written, cooled then served and reheated in the reader's experience. I ask myself then, are we entering a period of revival of Romanticism? I hope so. It would be very good for everyone involved in poetry.

So, dear blog reader, let me hear from you on this topic.