Friday, February 13, 2009

In the occasion and For the occasion

Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s book party last week for That Gorgeous Feeling was a warm occasion in a warm place, thanks to the warm people and poems some of them read for Juliette, poems written for the event. These poems, in particular Stan Mir’s poem “A Crush of Consonants and Open Vowels for Juliette,” got me to thinking about the possibilities of an occasional poem, what with Elizabeth Alexander’s recent inaugural poem lingering, poets having blogged and blogged about it. I talked to a lot of people about Alexander’s poem, too—writers and nonwriters—and nobody seems to have liked it. People said it was bland, boring. But I doubt it could have been otherwise. What would you write if you were asked to write something for that occasion (as if Obama’s oratory weren’t poetry enough, and the fact of his election)? I think I would write some hopelessly universal thing about hope. So I’m not sure what those who were really disappointed had been expecting (and I appreciated Reb Livingston’s response to the critics).

But I was reminded of how public poetry can be, at least in terms of satire, when I watched Stephen Colbert’s interview with Alexander. The answers to his questions about poetry were more evident for me in Colbert’s form (his irony, his timing) than in what Alexander said. I thought it was hilarious. His questions included “Poems aren’t true, are they?” and “What’s the difference between a metaphor and a lie?” His final questions bordered on critique. After Alexander explains what an occasional poem is, Colbert asks: if her poem is “marked by the commonality of experience” then “why not soaring rhetoric . . . why not light up the crowd?”

Though Colbert’s show is his show and Alexander had no show to make her own (the inauguration’s tone was predetermined), it’s clear that some element of performance could have helped. That’s what was missing. Five years ago my friend Andrew Bradley recited an epithalamion for my wedding. And it was great because Andrew’s a performer, and he’s witty, and the poem had an intimacy to it. Andrew knew me, and the people at the wedding knew me (and there weren't that many people). Stan Mir knew Juliette. The rest of us there knew her. So there was an intimacy. It’s hard to be intimate with 300 million people (Colbert comes a lot closer than most of us).

But I think intimacy, in writing, can have a universality if it can become its own place, its own occasion – this is why, for example, I can feel Ted Berrigan’s poems with all their references even though I never knew him or any of his friends. Stan’s poems have this quality, too. Not just in that he pulls the news into his poems and includes both public and personal events, but in how he twines them: he creates a seamlessness between items, from line to line, all things made equal but bound by an insistence on the present, which I associate with truth, with what is. And from that perhaps intimacy. Or maybe it’s simply the acknowledgment of the complexity of any moment, any occasion, the “dull moment” in search of the “gorgeous feeling.” Here’s the poem Stan wrote for Juliette:

The crush of consonants

in Tom Daschle & the open

vowels of John Yau have

got me thinking of Mary Ann

Caws who says “Poetry can be

any damn thing it wants”

The treaty of 1868

We are not alone in a room

Being alone is anarchy

I’m certain the mice are

in the ceiling

A bomb instead of a drawing

It snowed last night

The sun today a postscript

If what we remember is

aberration how come I

remember all the dull moments

leading up this gorgeous

feeling of being done

I'm talking about the Williams tradition (poem as reality unto itself), which is a tradition I like because it’s interested in paring down the past that’s our skin, the bullshit that can walk and talk us. The attention to the dull moment implies an open ear and a search for music, the desire to carve from the world a moment never dull, a piece of music one can enter, walk through and exit with hopefully some feeling in tact, some echoing idea. Anything but a lie.

John Drury, in his Poetry Dictionary (a useful undergraduate teaching tool, by the way), suggests that all verse might be occasional. He defines “occasional verse” as “anything that represents a quick sketch of the ephemeral, of time fleeing.” I think of Frank O’Hara’s “Personism” and “The Day Lady Died,” a poem which so many of us love. That poem undercuts my temptation to say “No meaning but in the dull moment” or “No meaning but out of the dull moment.” Because that’s not entirely true. Just as “no ideas but in things” is not entirely true; nor “description does nothing.” I think Alexander tried for something like “no meaning but in the dull moment,” but she was stuck in the big occasion, in the main idea, isolated, which we fall victim to all the time.