Despite being heart broken and (let’s face it –lazy), I have left my apartment and walked in the wet December weather to a small espresso bar on the other side of town. I owe thanks to you for this, the impetus to quiet everything else for the sake of poetry. The air felt good, had its own magic like a spell against self-indulgence. As I walked, I thought about our first class together –the way that you asked so easily and in (what I might call) earnest: What is it that has made us do this for so long? This ancient art –just symbols on a page to signify …what? I don’t know if I answered you then, but I have been thinking about your question ever since.
Of course, there is no universal answer, no one thing that can make any heart beat faster (except danger I guess, so lets call this danger). I have been watching the other poets, their written work and gestures, the way they do or do not love a choice of word. It is not impossible for anyone to craft a perfect sentence with precision, to place a line break just so. But, is that all that we are after? A water-colorist rendering a peony with grace and just the right amount of shadow –of untouched white?
It seems to me this old alchemy, this art of incantation, can only work for those who know how dangerous a spell can be to the spell-maker and cast it anyway. One would in essence, risk something of themselves each time. Perhaps you are thinking, now, what about the small things, the poems that tear off and become mementos or wedding toasts? Well, what of them? They fit into the palm of your hand and slip easily through the fingers. Or, they help you tie your shoes and learn the alphabet. (Which are important skills, in context.)
What a poem needs is a hook, a dangerous one. I am thinking now of Atwood’s “You Fit Into Me”: You fit into me/ like a hook into an eye/ a fish hook/ an open eye. And also, with less literal hook, June Jordan’s “Poem Number Two on Bell’s Theorem, or the New Physicality of Long Distance Love”: There is no chance that we will fall apart/ There is no chance/ There are no parts. Such short poems, such large hooks. Hooks, bear with me, that point toward the reader and curve back sharply at the self.
Must a poem invoke love to have power? Must a spell come from suffering? Sadness? No. I’d like to believe magic is more flexible. That it does not only cling to the nights alone without stars. Words have greater power the truer they are, this I can say with certainty. Is there truth in beauty? Yes, but it is compromised, like love and faith and anything else one can bet their whole lives on. So it is the illumination of compromise that rings true, not the fact of beauty. These are the poems that make Poets.
Look again at Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses.” The minute detail of daily life which begs for reverence: “There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb./ He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,/ from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,/ the blade of which is almost worn away.” The repetition of a sentence and a mood, like mixing more of the perfect shade before returning: “Cold dark deep and absolutely clear.” Absolutely, Bishop does not fuck around. She wants to tell us something about Knowledge and she wants us to earn it. Holding our hands down in the icy water until they ache and then burn, she shows us what it means –this act of learning. Finally, the spell is cast and when she writes “If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,/ then briny, then surely burn your tongue,” we believe her. Worm-laden in the turbid water and waiting for our mouths, the hook: “It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, /drawn from the cold hard mouth.” How could the ocean not be dangerous? How could we have not known, before, what she makes so clear?
I mentioned I was heart-broken, well, what else is new? I’ve been reading the same Mary Oliver lines for years like I believe them. Any poet, no matter how strong, could turn away from the animal inside a poem in favor of the compromised. Poem animals have been alone too long and they are dangerous. Not like women who carry paring knives with mother-of-pearl handles in their clutches, but like women who know how to use their hands and have nothing else to lose. Those animals belong to another world; they know why we do this, they call to me.
See You in The Forest, Gala