I’m giving a presentation tomorrow in my department’s Colloquium Series, in which my colleagues or visiting guests present the results of their research. Since my “research” is poetry, my presentation will be mostly a reading, but I also want to open up my own history & influences, while at the same time saying a few things about what I think poetry is capable of. I’ve spent the last decade, frankly, doubting the value of poetry & trying to write against that doubt. Slowly over the last year or so I have begun to work toward the sense that the value of poetry is to hold judgment in suspense, if not indefinitely, then long enough that judgment be informed with . . . what? If I have to choose just one thing, I would want poetry — all poetry, but my poetry in particular — to suspend judgement long enough for generosity to enter. Perhaps this is just a version of Keats’ notion of Negative Capability: “The ability,” the poet wrote to his younger brother, “to be in doubts, mysteries and uncertainties without irritably reaching after fact and reason.” Not that I’d deny the importance of fact or reason — I’m very interested in them.
My poetic autobiography is pretty mainstream. I have been sympathetic to the revolutions going on around me, but mostly I have followed the poetics developed at the beginning of the 20th century by the great Anglo-American modernists, though I have reached back, too, toward Emily Dickinson & Walt Whitman, a couple of poets Pound & Eliot were suspicious of. So I will lay out my early attachments & my application to the Writers Workshop in order to study with Donald Justice, a poet who would say, late in life, that he regretted not having lived in a time when there was a period style. Don might have envied, I think, the way jazz players have a set of standard tunes they can play individual variations on and in the process work out both a group & individual style. He had studied musical composition as a young man & the only music I ever heard him play was Bach. Don Justice was very important to me and I was distressed to see how he was championed later by the reactionary “New Formalists,” who had to distort his great achievements in free verse in order to make him a hero of metrical verse.
Most of the touchstones of my own poetry were already in place by the time I left Iowa. Some — Donne’s lyrics, Auden, Berryman, James Wright, Williams, Roethke — I’d acquired before going to Iowa, but while studying there I picked up on Elizabeth Bishop (via my teacher Sandra McPherson), Robert Hass, Linda Gregg, Czeslaw Milosz, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Rilke. My appreciation of Dr. Williams was deepened by studying him with Don, the supposed paragon of formalism. No doubt there are many others, but those were & have remained the central figures of my own writing. I am only one teacher away from Bishop & Berryman, with whom my own teachers studied. The only significant influence I came by after leaving Iowa in 1980 is Hayden Carruth, who is now the titular spirit of my poetic house. The one remaining — & more recent influence on my poetry & on my thinking generally — has been several extended periods in Vietnam over the last decade & a half.
That’s where I came from, but what do I believe about poetry? I’ve already mentioned Negative Capability as both a moral and aesthetic pivot in my work. I believe in the reality of feeling & of the affects generally, including mood, reverie, and other states of intuitive knowledge. Surely we poets need not apologize for asserting a strong ontological claim for such states when modern cosmology posits multiple, perhaps infinitely multiple, universes; when string theory supposes the existence of half a dozen extra dimensions invisible to us because they are “rolled up” into the curved surfaces of Calabi-Yau manifolds; when tried & true quantum mechanics makes a strong claim for probability waves, or wave functions, which are not waves of anything or in anything, but finally as far as I can tell, waves in thought. So poets need not apologize for examining human affective states, from the calmest to the most agitated, from the most contented to the most anxious.
One thinks in this regard of Elizabeth Bishop’s great poem, “In the Waiting Room,” in which the poet looks back upon her seven-year-old self at the very moment that she, Elizabeth Bishop, realizes she is a self, “an Elizabeth,” as the poem says. One thinks of the child William Wordsworth have to grip a fence post or a stone in order to reassure himself of the existence of a world outside his thoughts; one thinks of Hartley Coleridge, son of the great Romantic poet & philosopher, who, aged four, when asked whether he had enjoyed a ride in a dog cart, replied that he might have enjoyed it more if he had not “always been thinking of his thoughts.” One thinks of William Blake noting that the balloon of the imagination needs the ballast provided by sacks of earth.
Eliot said that poetry “purifies the language of the tribe,” but surely this is High Modernist overreaching; at best, perhaps, poetry might remind those who are willing to be reminded of the importance of what the historical Buddha called “right speech.” And right speech is speech that pauses, halts, even stutters, on its way to judgment. Stutterers are often flawless singers, I once wrote in a poem. I also wrote, in another poem, that “knowledge is loved information” & poetry surely is one way though of course not the only way of turning information — especially affective information — into knowledge.
I will expand on those ideas and read illustrative poems by some of the figures mentioned above, along with a dozen or so of my own poetry poems, several finished just this year after what I can only describe as a return to poetry, despite the fact that I never completely abandoned my muse, who I sometimes visualize as a skinny girl with a little bit of a drug problem.