Robert Creeley, For Love / Selected Poems
Ah, Creeley—whose late-in-life blurb floats on the back of Rankine's book, and who truly, truly, broke open poetry for me.
Yesterday I wanted to
speak of it, that sense above
the others to me
important because all
that I know derives
from what it teaches me.
Today, what is it that
is finally so helpless,
different, despairs of its own
statement, wants to
turn away, endlessly
to turn away.
Creeley's "For Love" (the rest of which you can read here) taught me that poetry did not have to be raised, eloquent speech—that it could, quite simply, be failed speech, leaned so far into that it became a kind of singing. Here's the beginning of another poem:
love you some-
take care not
to hurt, you
Through Creeley's poems, I was finally able to look at my own halting, broken pattern of expression not as something to erase, but to let be. We all have access to this incompetence! Try writing into it, rather than running away...
Listen to the rest of "For Love," "The Language," and other Creeley poems on PennSound. (Creeley is an amazing reader, and PennSound is an incredible resource—explore around.)
Ben Lerner, Mean Free Path
I'll end with the youngest author here, and a book that also happens to be influenced greatly by Creeley's "For Love"—Ben Lerner's Mean Free Path. This is the Creeley of broken love (as its hope); it is the Whitman of our broken social body (as, also...). From its opening poem:
For I felt nothing,
which was cool,
totally cool with me.
For my blood was cola.
For my authority was small
in my face.
For I had had some work done
on my face.
For I was afraid
left at intersections.
For I was in a turning lane.
For I was signaling,
the will to change.
For I could not throw my voice
I feel my generation here, utterly. But Lerner goes through the mirror: as a poet of the Nevermind generation, he could also be playing us Stevie Nix as he writes this. What follows is a series of collaged, broken meditations on what it means to love when so much conspires against that....and what that means right now, in our particular (and peculiar) historical circumstances. I feel myself returned, as a poet, in spite of a deep, deep cynicism about the world, and language, to actually giving a shit....having something to say...wanting to share that...
As if Jon Stewart started singing.
Reading for Pleasure, Reading for Life (Conclusion; Or, "The Poetry App")
The reason to read poetry, for you, has to be because you love and get something out of it. If that's not happening, it doesn't mean stop reading--it might be a signal to "read again"—but I'd be a fool to legislate anything other than pleasure here. Your poetry "curriculum" is only to look for that spirit of joyous optimism wherever you can find it.
Or is it? Delusionally or not, I always feel, when reading, as if quite a bit is at stake. At their core, poems remind me of at least one thing: that I have only one life, and that it's a life with others: other people, other creatures, complicated and interrelated systems of life. Urgency—right—that's what calls me back to read. Here's an excerpt from "Like Something Christenberry Pictured" by C.D. Wright:
...stepping out of the story
(ineluctably over, fellow travelers)
here just long enough to testify
to a blinding intensity
under that big dry socket of god
the camera mounted to capture
ordinary traffic violations
fixes instead on your final face
a single frame of unadulterated
urgency is what you see, urgency it is.
I don't think these two things—pleasure and urgency—are at odds, here. Not in a poem.
I hope that this series has given you some new ways to approach poetry in the 21st century. Please comment here or email me if you'd like to keep up the discussion. I've enjoyed spending the time with you.