Photo by Virginia Lee HunterPOETS CAN BE DIVIDED INTO TWO CATEGORIES: those who fall about laughing when the subject of book sales is broached; and those who, brows furrowed, earnestly assure you that more and more people are becoming interested in poetry. My own preference, I'll admit, is for poets in the first category — gallows humor is always bracing. Once upon a time, to write a poem was to try, against all odds, to outwit the vast indifference of eternity: to set down in a few lines words that would be read hundreds of years after they were written. The vast indifference of eternity is now the least of a poet's problems. What bothers poets today is the vast indifference of the present.
“Poetry is the soul of a culture, man,” I was told by a Los Angeles poet named Eric Priestley. If that is true — and it may not be, obviously — then this is a culture that steers well clear of its soul. Poetry matters remarkably little to us, either on a daily level or on a symbolic, even sentimental, level. No one talks about it, and no one quotes it. No one even seems to feel nostalgic about it. Yet somehow it lives on. Proudly, even defiantly. “After all,” wrote W.H. Auden in 1964, explaining the situation from the poet's point of view,
. . . it's rather a privilege
amid the affluent traffic
to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into
background noise for study
or hung as a status trophy by rising executives,
cannot be “done” like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
being read or ignored . . .
The case for poetry was made even more urgently by William Carlos Williams:
My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
And so, some 40 years after those lines were written, here we are, dying miserably in affluent traffic jams with cell phones glued to our ears. If poetry felt pretty small-time in Williams' day, it feels positively microscopic now. Yet even in the crush of rush-hour traffic, poetry rears its graying head. In April (poetry month), a group called poets anonymous launched a billboard campaign throughout the city. The idea seemed to be that, instead of staring at the latest ads, weary drivers would enjoy contemplating a few lines of poetry in extremely large, commuter-friendly type. Most of the stuff was pretty lame, barely preferable to the sales pitches that surrounded it, but one poem-fragment (by Nikki Giovanni) came close to articulating why an anonymous group of poets might feel desperate enough to put poems on billboards in the first place:
perhaps these are not poetic
PERHAPS NOT. THE TWO THINGS THAT SEEM TO EXCITE Americans right now are toilet humor and technology. Poetry, on the other hand, seems quaint, like starting a civil war or planting your own cabbage. The Serbs like poetry, and look what we did to them — we bombed them back to the Renaissance, where poetry belongs. “I try not to read poetry, not even dead people's poetry,” I was told by Christopher Knight, the L.A. Times' art critic. “It's hard to explain why. I find something embarrassing about poetry. It's such a weird, atavistic thing to do.”
But what does it mean to say that these are not “poetic times”? What would poetic times consist of? Endless bloodshed, as in Homer? Kings and queens, as in Shakespeare? The New York art world, as in Ashbery and O'Hara? It's hard to say — in fact, the term is probably meaningless, since people have produced great poetry under almost all imaginable conditions. Even in Stalinist Russia, when poets were persecuted and imprisoned, poetry thrived.
Still, even if it's impossible to define what a poetic time might consist of, you have only to turn on your television, or stare into the nobody-home shades of the person in the tanklike vehicle next to you, to sense what an unpoetic time looks like. It looks, surely, like a time in which human beings are being slowly buried under an avalanche of marketing and media. When one thinks of contemporary poetry, particularly in L.A., what comes to mind is not poetry so much as the ad campaign for ABC created by the copywriters at Chiat/Day in Venice. It's those ultrahip scribblers, after all, whose brief, carefully worded messages we're always reading. These, you might say, are the lyric poems of the age. “My, what big pupils you have,” they taunt from benches and bus shelters and billboards all over the city. In a better world, the copywriters at Chiat/Day would be imprisoned, or force-marched up to the Getty and made to stare at travertine marble until they went blind, but they, not poets, are the contemporary wordsmiths whose work actually influences people.
But so what? If these are not poetic times, a growing number of people will turn to poetry for precisely that reason. Poets in the second category may have a point: More poetry is being published than ever before, and according to certain critics who are paid to read it, the best of it is as good as anything in our literature. It may even be that we are living through a golden age of poetry and just don't appreciate it. As Randall Jarrell observed, in a golden age people complain that everything looks yellow. (Of course, he hadn't seen the ABC ads.)
“What's remarkable is the terrific poetry being written at every level,” I was told by David St. John, arguably the city's most lauded poet. (He is also one of the few to have a major publisher — HarperCollins.) We were sitting in a café near his home in Venice, and St. John, a smart, friendly, articulate man with a true Californian's ease of manner, was warming to his theme. “You can go often to a reading by a group of people you've never heard of and be stunned by how well-written and gorgeous the poems are. I've been surprised in this city by the levels of the writing. The audience for poetry in L.A. is tremendously sophisticated, probably more sophisticated than anywhere in the country except New York. The audience in L.A. happily engages itself with poets from Charles Bernstein to Charles Wright. They're happy to hear these poets of radically differing aesthetics, and to appreciate them with equal fervor.”
“I see what you're talking about with regard to readings,” I told St. John, “but what I don't see is people talking about poetry in everyday conversation, and I never see anyone reading poetry. Poets just don't seem to come up.”
“It's the culture,” St. John answered sadly. “Anyone who's lived in Europe knows the place of poetry in the culture. I've lived in Rome and I've lived in Paris. You open up a daily newspaper in Italy, and there's an article by Moravia, or Eco, on a movie, or a local arts show. You have distinguished writers talking about the culture in newspapers!”
“Whereas here we farm all that out to specialists.”
“Absolutely. And it seems to generate a kind of isolation of the arts — poetry, music, ballet, opera. They have their audiences, very strong audiences, but they remain circumscribed. And I think it's because the figures who are important to those arts aren't brought into the larger cultural conversation.”
“When people talk about there being a revival, are they talking about poetry in terms of performance?”
“No. I think the audience is there not only for the readings, but for the books. And I'll tell you why I think it is. I think it's because the official language of the culture, the language of the nightly news, the language of newspapers, the language that surrounds people in their daily lives, becomes so self-evidently empty to everyone that, instinctively, people have gone looking for language being used with any kind of integrity whatsoever. They know that language can connect to ideas and human emotions, but it's not around them, they don't see it anywhere.”
Not everyone has as sanguine a view as St. John. Dana Gioia is a poet who grew up in Hawthorne. His essay, “Can Poetry Matter?,” which was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1991, got people talking about poetry in greater numbers than anyone could have imagined possible. (The Atlantic received an enormous amount of reader response for the article. This suggests that although people may not read poetry very much anymore, they are aware of the fact and want to know why.) “There is a huge renaissance of poetry activity in L.A.,” Gioia told me over the phone from his home in Northern California, “but there are no governing standards. You can't have great literature without great standards, and no one wants to hear this, especially in L.A. There's a real mistaken impression that more art is better art, whereas in fact lots of bad poetry will deaden the appetite for good poetry.”
“Are there any good poets in L.A. I probably wouldn't have heard about?” I asked.
Gioia thought for a moment and then said: “As a matter of fact, there's a woman named Leslie Monsour. Do you know her?”
“Hold on a second,” Gioia said, putting down the phone. A minute later he was back. “She sent me a little chapbook of poems, and it's ã really good. She seems emblematic of the situation in L.A. A person of genuine talent, and more importantly of that dogged self-critical capability that is so important to a poet, but which in L.A. has had no soil to take root in. Her work is compressed, formal, with an ironic turn to it. There's a poem of hers called 'Parking Lot,' which you might like.”
Gioia then proceeded to read the poem to me over the phone. He read the lines slowly, clearly, to make them easier to follow.
It's true that billboard silhouettes and power
Lines rebuke dusk's fair and fragile fire,
As those who go on living have to prowl
And watch for someone leaving down each aisle.
While this takes place, a tender moon dips toward
The peach and blood horizon, pale, ignored.
I try to memorize impermanence:
The strange, alarming beauty of the sky,
The white moon's path, the twilight's deep, blue eye.
I want to stay till everything makes sense.
But oily-footed pigeons flap and chase —
A red Camaro flushes them apart,
Pulling up and waiting for my space;
It glistens, mean and earthly, like a heart.
“Now that,” said Gioia after he had read the poem out, “strikes me as a pretty good poem about a parking lot.”
It struck me the same way. I'd been reading a fair amount of L.A. poetry — in fact, for a few weeks I was probably reading more poetry written by Angelenos than anyone else in the city, though I was constantly berating myself for not reading more, because it wasn't even a fraction of what was out there — and this particular poem was the first I'd come across that struck me as a truly memorable expression of the city. Not that it was perfect. It got off to a decidedly shaky start, with half rhymes that should really have been full rhymes and a slight obscurity of meaning, but when the moon appeared on that “peach and blood” horizon, the poem took off.
We ask both very little and a great deal of poets. All we ask of them, really, is that, once in a while, they string together a few good lines — but they do have to be good. And if they manage to produce a handful of great poems, even good ones, we can forgive them their less successful efforts. In the last nine and a half lines of her poem, Monsour had won me over. “I try to memorize impermanence” — how many times had I tried to do that? Staring at the beauty of the city, trying to imprint it on my mind like a photograph? With its oily-footed pigeons, glistening red Camaro and insistent sense of pressure — someone always behind you, cursing you, waiting for you to move — “Parking Lot” struck me as a topnotch bit of contemporary urban poetry encased in that mustiest of forms: a sonnet. It was nowhere to be found, however, in what was effectively the city's telephone directory for poets: Grand Passion: The Poetry of Los Angeles and Beyond, an anthology with more than its share of mediocre doodling. Monsour, I later learned, had submitted some of her poems, including “Parking Lot,” to the editors, but had been turned down.
“It was the parking lot at the corner of Ventura Boulevard and Laurel Canyon in Studio City,” Monsour told me when I met her over lunch at Farmers Market. “It's a heavily used parking lot, because there's a Vons there, a Sav-On, a video-rental place, a Gap, 31 Flavors, Kinko's — there's just about everything there, and people are crawling all over each other so they can park and do their errands.”
“So your epiphany was rudely interrupted.”
“Well, if someone's waiting for you to clear out of your parking spot because they need the space and you just sit there, they do start to wonder what the hell you're doing. So even if you're noticing the sunset and going into a reverie about an aspect of Earth's beauty, you can't be oblivious, because parking spots are in demand.”
“Perhaps you should have called the poem 'In Demand.'”
“Actually, I chose 'Parking Lot' because 'lot' has other meanings. 'Lot' can mean your lot in life, or your lot in the cemetery, and it's kind of like the whole system of population control, you have to get out sometimes to make room for others. The engine in the car is the heart beating, a new life waiting to take another heart's place.”
“Was it really a Camaro?”
“No. I chose a Camaro because it fit the meter and the mood, and because someone in a Camaro strikes me as a person who might be impatient for you to get out of your parking space. At least you'd be aware of this big engine rumbling, waiting for you to leave. I was thinking of it as a muscle car with hotheaded youth at the wheel.”
Monsour is in her 40s, a smallish woman with pale skin, thick reddish-brown hair, and sleepy, heavy-lidded eyes. She has published two chapbooks, and was recently selected by the venerable Poetry magazine as a featured poet, an honor Monsour characterized as the poetry world's equivalent of playmate of the month. Partly because she married and had children, Monsour got off to a relatively slow start as a poet. She spent a lot of time in poetry workshops — as most aspiring poets do — where free verse was king, and rhyme and meter long-vanquished enemies, and the technical side of the art was discussed only in the vaguest terms. What is a poem? “Well,” a poet-teacher might answer if given a truth serum, “it's whatever makes you, the customer, feel good.” (Poets have to look after the bottom line, too.) The workshops she attended, Monsour has said, “were like music classes where no one knew how to read music; we listened as we hummed our tunes, and we talked about the way they sounded, and the way they made us feel. But we skipped the basic, important questions of key signature and beats per measure.”
In 1987, Monsour took a class at UCLA Extension with a poet named Timothy Steele, a leading member of a group known as the “New Formalists.” Steele, a strict rhyme-and-meter man with a disarmingly gentle manner, soon had the erstwhile free-versers whipped into soldierly shape. Metaphorically speaking, they learned how to polish their shoes, oil their guns, press their trousers and make their beds. Instead of ignoring tradition, they saluted it. Monsour found she enjoyed being in the ranks of the New Formalists and finally began to write the kinds of poems she had always hoped to write. In this, her experience was similar to that of Vikram Seth, the Anglo-Indian novelist who studied informally under Steele when both were graduate students at Stanford in the late 1970s. Seth went on to write The Golden Gate, a best-selling “novel” about San Francisco yuppies, written entirely in rhymed sonnets. (The book is dedicated to Steele.) Seth, who told me that Steele is “one of the great poets in the language,” has credited his friend with teaching him to look at poetry “not simply as an indulgence, a ã letting off of passionate steam, but [as] an attempt to crystallize experience, to make from it memorable communication.”
IF THE CHOICE IS BETWEEN PASSIONATE STEAM AND crystallized experience, the average L.A. poet is probably more interested in steam. Writing poetry is seen as a therapeutic act, not just by amateurs but sometimes also by professionals. “It's like therapy for me,” Eric Priestley said one afternoon as we stood on a rundown stretch of Western Avenue, outside the office where he does his writing. Then, screwing up his face into a parody of Anthony Hopkins' in The Silence of the Lambs, he launched into a hilarious imitation of Hannibal Lecter mocking our earnest belief in the socially redeeming value of “therapy.” I took this to mean that, even if he did often write poetry partly for therapeutic reasons — and what poet doesn't? — Priestley was well aware that the relief a poet might feel after writing a poem did not guarantee the quality of the final product.
Nonetheless, the idea of poetry as therapy, of poetry as confession, of poetry as an airing of “my” feelings, may well be what attracts most of the small number of readers who are still attracted to it. What many people are looking for is not art so much as authenticity, confession, identity. “Who the hell cares about Anne Sexton's grandmother?” Auden snapped after hearing the American poet read aloud one of her “confessional” poems. The answer, of course, is that lots of people do. Like Sylvia Plath, Sexton is seen as a “feminist” poet, and this easy-to-understand label wins her readers and gives politically minded teachers a platform from which to teach her. Being an unpopular art, poetry is especially vulnerable to politicization, if only because labeling someone a “feminist” poet automatically adds political significance (feminism) to something people secretly believe to have no significance whatsoever: poetry. Ours is a highly utilitarian culture, and poetry is the least utilitarian art form imaginable. Even in the dullest museum, you can at least look for someone to pick up.
Being black, Eric Priestley is automatically labeled an “African-American poet,” a label he resents. “Poetry, real poetry, transcends ethnicity,” he told me. “It's a universal language like mathematics” — a remark paradoxically borne out by the fact that translations of poets like Neruda and Rilke and Kahlil Gibran seem to sell far more in the States than those of homegrown poets like Dickinson or Frost. Still, even if he wanted to, it was obvious Priestley couldn't escape the label. Though we started off talking about poetry, within minutes we were talking about race — a subject that had not come up during my conversations with white poets.
“One of the things you have to realize, man, is that Los Angeles is probably one of the most segregated cities in the world outside South Africa. God, man, it's incredible . . .” Priestley said, and one had only to glance at the dusty, bare-bones neighborhood we were talking in to realize the lived reality behind that observation. Nonetheless, in a poem simply entitled “L.A.,” he offered up a wildly juicy hymn to the city in which English and Spanish trade lines:
The last time I saw L.A.
she was singing los corridos
muy pulcra mas penachos rojos
enferno many feathers mezclarando
all mixed up in el pelo
crooked justice angel hair . . .
she was mucha salsa con chile
smoking fumas by the minute
giving birth to little ashes
pimienta pepper sangre blood
& dripping jalapeños . . .
Even better, perhaps, was the superb “Nobody Dies,” as rousing a poem about the failure to rouse the dead as one can imagine reading:
wake up brother & tell us
when you died
did your synapses fail to pass acetylcholine
to the next nerve juncture on that day
hangman's knot crimped your sphincter & turned your
bowels to water in the bigots' clay?
did they whip your head till it flayed in the maw?
was it the wrong place wrong time?
did they smoke your hood?
were they yoking you to the bone raw?
did you take your sappin' good?
wake up brother!
tell us how you died!
Of all the poets I met, Priestley was probably the most fun to talk to. But talking to him was also confusing. One moment he'd rail against the “effete snobbery” of the “Yale and Harvard” crew, the next he'd make fun of “freestyle” rappers who thought they'd invented free verse. He believed young poets should practice writing in meter, but seemed uneasy with the idea that that might entail spending a lot of time analyzing poems already written in meter. He complained that he'd never been invited to read at UCLA, but then added that he'd been on a panel at UCLA during a Festival of Books. In a way, he seemed trapped. Cut off from the white world, estranged from his own neighborhood. And as with a lot of poets, his biggest problem was that he was practicing an art form that most people knew little about.
“To converse and have discourse about these things between you and I, half of the people in my neighborhood, man, they would have walked out of this room,” he told me at one point. “They wouldn't know what the hell y'all talking about. Who is Pound? Who is Eliot? That's a problem. That's a serious problem. And it has to do with education.”
“And if we'd been talking about Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker, same problem?”
“Same problem. If you're talking about Dr. Dre or Tupac Shakur, they know about those people.”
“Or Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith?”
Priestley waved an arm in disgust. “Oh, man, please. I started quoting Melvin Tolson one day, this guy says, 'Who's that you're talking about?' I said, 'That's one of the most celebrated poets of the Harlem Renaissance.' Even the advanced kids today, they wouldn't know Tolson.”
Perhaps that was why, these days, Priestley was writing a lot more prose than poetry. A founding member of the Watts Writers Workshop, he had already published one novel (Raw Dog), and had written several more, along with a screenplay version to accompany each one. For Priestley, I suspected, poetry was a luxury — or perhaps it really was a form of therapy after all. The day we spoke, he was wearing a cap with the words FINAL DRAFT printed on it. He'd gotten it for free with his screenwriter's computer program.
THE ONE REALLY FAMOUS POET L.A. HAS PRODUCED IS the late Charles Bukowski, and he has plenty of followers. Timothy Steele is not one of them. Steele, Vikram Seth's mentor-pal at Stanford and now a professor of English at Cal State L.A., is exactly the kind of poet Bukowski derided in his poem “The Replacements”:
Jack London drinking his life away while
writing of strange and heroic men.
Eugene O'Neill drinking himself oblivious
while writing his dark and poetic
now our moderns
lecture at universities
in tie and suit,
the little boys soberly studious,
the little girls with glazed eyes
the lawns so green, the books so dull,
the life so dying of
Like a lot of Bukowski's poems, this one is as easy to read as an article in USA Today, and rather more appealing. Critics like Harold Bloom like to point out that, to be good, a poem must reward repeated re-readings; what they sometimes forget is that, to be read, a poem must also reward a single reading. This Bukowski's poems do. And if there isn't much to be gleaned from a second reading, well, you can always turn the page and go on to the next poem. Bukowski wrote a lot of them.
The problem is that single readings aren't what they used to be: ã These days, a poem's lucky to get a single skimming. We read like people with a train to catch. Perhaps this is why most people now think of poetry as a kind of performance art, something to be listened to in a club rather than read on a sofa. Even poets rarely ask if you've “read” a poet anymore; they ask if you've seen him.
When I mentioned Bukowski to Steele, he made a wry face and told me that, as a judge for a book contest, he'd once read a volume of Bukowski's called The Roominghouse Madrigals. The memory made him smile. “After reading a lot of obscure poetry,” he told me, “there was a certain charm about Bukowski which is — this isn't fair, but . . .” (Steele started to laugh) “'I get up in the morning/it's ten o'clock,/baby, let's get a beer' — you know, you could understand it.” Still laughing, Steele then quoted a statement by Coleridge about poetry broadening our sympathies and told me how, after reading Bukowski's roominghouse poems, in which cockroaches were constantly being urinated on and stepped on and generally made to go SPLAT about once every three lines, he began to feel quite sympathetic toward the little creatures.
“Obviously you think Bukowski's been a fairly disastrous influence on young poets,” I suggested when Steele had stopped laughing. “But he does seem to touch people.”
“Yeah, and I think it's partly because they don't think of the art, they think of the artist, or the image of the artist, so they're drawn to him for that reason in part. He's a kind of rebel, and in that sense, I think you're much better off taking a pop star, because heaven knows, Lennon-McCartney and Dylan write in meter, so you at least get something of the art from them.”
Though he has lived here since the late 1970s, Steele is not well-known in L.A., where his advocacy of metrics goes against the grain. (“Well, bully for you, Mr. Steele” was one poet's response when I showed him a poem by Steele.) A youthful-looking 50, he has published three books of poetry and two books of criticism. To me, his poetry can seem both contemporary and slightly antiquated, as in the following epigram (an antique form in itself) called “A Million Laughs,” which might have been written about Robin Williams:
No one can out-lampoon, -joke, -quip, or -pun you,
But the funnier you get the more we shun you.
The moral, sir? He who possesses wit
Should also have the sense to ration it.
One of the things you notice about “formal” poetry of this kind is that it's easier to memorize and quote. Lines pair off into couplets or cluster together in quatrains or sestets, and stick more easily in the mind. A point Steele likes to make, when the discussion turns to formalism, is that rhyme and meter are inherently pleasurable. “I think if people do discover the joys of working with meter, the negative press that it so often gets — that it's a straitjacket, that it constrains feeling and emotion horribly — when they see that that isn't the case at all, they get very excited about it. And also it introduces into writing a kind of hedonistic element in the very best sense. Leslie [Monsour] took to it like a duck to water. Something had been missing, she had been looking for something, and that was what it was.”
Steele, as a reading of his criticism reveals, is a scholar as well as a poet in a city in which self-expression for its own sake is valued much more highly than erudition. This was a point made to me by Samuel Maio, whose book The Burning of Los Angeles (1996) is one of the more ambitious attempts to capture the city in verse. (He now lives in Northern California.) “If you read all those dusty books by poets like Auden and Hardy and Eliot,” Maio told me, “you weren't cool. That's how I felt. I really sensed an anti-intellectualism. A lot of it, bizarrely, comes from those poets who have found their way into teaching positions. Somehow, their idea is, 'I'm not really a teacher, man, I'm a poet,' and to reinforce their identity as poets they're consciously anti-intellectual.”
Steele wears his learning lightly, but he does wear it. In one of his most moving poems (“Sapphics Against Anger”), he writes: ã
Angered, may I be near a glass of water;
May my first impulse be to think of Silence,
Its deities (who are they? do, in fact, they
May I recall what Aristotle says of
The subject: to give vent to rage is not to
Release it but to be increasingly prone
To its incursions.
May I imagine being in the Inferno,
Hearing it asked: “Virgilio mio, who's
That sulking with Achilles there?” and hearing
Virgil say: “Dante,
That fellow, at the slightest provocation,
Slammed phone receivers down, and waved his arms like
A madman. What Attila did to Europe,
What Genghis Khan did
To Asia, that poor dope did to his marriage . . .”
As poetry goes, this is on the academic side. Obviously, the poet is well-versed in the classics of Western Lit, and his poem is written in a form that dates back a mere 26 centuries to the ancient-Greek poet Sappho. (Each stanza is made up of three lines of 11 syllables, followed by a fourth line of five syllables, so that each verse ends with a kind of “dying fall.”) The language is quiet, unflashy, but also terrifically controlled and subtly melodious. In what comes close to being a credo, a kind of secular prayer, Steele continues his poem by stating why all that learning might be useful:
. . . May I, that is, put learning to good purpose,
Mindful that melancholy is a sin, though
Stylish at present.
Better than rage is the post-dinner quiet,
The sink's warm turbulence, the streaming platters,
The suds rehearsing down the drain in spirals
In the last rinsing.
For what is, after all, the good life save that
Conducted thoughtfully, and what is passion
If not the holiest of powers, sustaining
Only if mastered.
DOES IT MATTER IF PEOPLE IN L.A. READ L.A.'S POETS? NOT really. What matters is that people read poetry — then they might read L.A.'s poets as well. Or so I told myself after coming to the conclusion that although I liked certain poems by all the poets mentioned here, as well as by poets not mentioned here, such as Suzanne Lummis, Harryette Mullen, James Ragan, Amy Gerstler, Charles Webb, Steve Kowit, Ellyn Maybe and others (there may be a shortage of poetry readers in L.A., but there's no shortage of poets), I had come across only a handful of poems whose absence from my life might, occasionally, produce a small twinge of regret.
While I was reading L.A.'s poets, I was also re-reading some poems by Philip Larkin, a morbid, depressive and reactionary English poet who, oddly enough, gets a favorable mention in the afterword to Grand Passion. (He's best known for his poem “This Be the Verse,” which begins: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,/They may not mean to but they do./They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you.”) One poem in particular (“The Trees”) had been holding my attention. In form and subject matter it was about as traditional as you could get, but “avant-garde” poems are now about as traditional as you can get also. It doesn't matter anymore how poems are written; it just matters that they're good.
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
“The Trees” is dated June 2, 1967, 19 days before the official opening of the Summer of Love. Larkin, a librarian who looked like a potato with glasses, no doubt found the Summer of Love to be as loveless as all the other summers. (“Too often summer days appear/Emblems of perfect happiness/I can't confront,” he once wrote, not exactly what girls grooving on Hendrix and the Stones wanted to hear.) But whereas Hendrix and the Stones now look painfully dated when they're taken out for a sentimental airing on VH1, “The Trees” remains as far beyond the reach of fashion as the day it was published.
Still, reading that last stanza, I heard the trees saying something else. Though it threw the meter off slightly, in my head the poem closed like this:
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Poetry is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
Who reads poetry anymore? Does anyone? The Weekly asked various intellectual types — people who do, presumably, read a lot of something — if poetry gets a look-in. Here’s what they had to say:
David Wilson, director, Museum of Jurassic Technology: I don’t read poetry very much anymore, even though I was pretty interested in it at an earlier point in my life. In my case, I think the reason is I have less time to read in general; I find myself working until I collapse. I miss it. It’s an experience unlike others, not one you can replace with other things. I’ve actually tried to get back into it, made a point of finding poets I thought I might be interested in, but I’ve just never engaged with it again in the way I did once.
Arianna Huffington, author, political commentator: I love reading poetry. I still read Greek poets like Seferis and Cavafy — “Waiting for the Barbarians” is one of my favorite poems, and “Those people were a kind of solution” is one of my favorite lines. I also love Rumi. Right now that’s the book I’m reading. I love Words worth, too, and a lot of the English poets, probably because I lived in England.
I have never discussed poetry with anyone in Los Angeles until [this phone call]. It doesn’t mean that people don’t love it, because people don’t know that I love it — it just hasn’t come up. It came up much more when I lived in London. People talked about poetry a lot more in London, and they also quoted much more, not just poetry, but literature in general. They did it in an unselfconscious way, as part of the things they carried with them. When I was in England I read a lot of W.H. Auden and Christopher Fry. There’s a great poem of Fry’s called “A Sleep of Prisoners.” I particularly remember the last stanza:
It takes so many thousand years to wake,
But will you wake for pity’s sake?
Just recently I was writing a column on Hillary Clinton’s listening tour in New York, and I happened to have been reading a poem by Rumi where he talks about “longing for your listening silence.” I didn’t quote it, though, because it would have seemed so entirely affected. You really cannot quote poetry in an American newspaper column without seeming affected.
Oliver Stone, film director (message delivered via an assistant): I do read poetry when I can. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is one of my favorites — always has been.
John Rechy, novelist: I read contemporary poetry infrequently. I do very often re-read classical poetry, and in my courses I often refer to Pope, the Metaphysical poets, then moving to modern times, T.S. Eliot, Hart Crane, James Thompson. I’ve pulled away from poetry, because it seems to be lacking in what I consider the language of poetry, which is passion. I think an alienation has been created, and some tight groups of poets seem to have developed a private language that shuts me out. They’ve become citizens of their own country, as it were, and because I deal with words and the exactitude of words, when I find that an intelligent man — i.e., myself [laughs] — isn’t connecting, I refuse to blame myself!
Octavia Butler, novelist: I don’t read a lot of it. My favorite right now, because it relates to some stuff I’m writing, is Gwendolyn Brooks. I guess what I like about poetry when I read it is that it says so much with so few words and says it so well.
There’s one poem by Brooks I’ve been reading to groups when I speak, which is about the loneliness of being God. I’ll read some of it aloud for you. It begins, “It must be lonely to be God,/Nobody loves the master, no,” and after saying why it might be lonely to be God, it ends:
Perhaps — who knows? — He tires of
Those eyes are never lifted, never straight.
Perhaps He tires of being great,
In solitude, without a hand to hold.
Jon Wiener, historian: At the moment, I read some of the poetry in The New Yorker, I read poems by friends, and I occasionally go to readings by my friends, though rarely. Sometimes I also read the poems in The Nation, though I’d emphasize the “sometimes.”
My friends don’t read poetry. The only people who read poetry are poets, but you don’t need me to tell you that. The New Yorker is the main place that I have any contact with the world of poetry, and sometimes there’s wonderful stuff in The New Yorker and I read it and enjoy it and don’t think about it very much afterwards. It’s just pleasure.
Russell Jacoby, author (The Last Intellectuals): I couldn’t add to Dana Gioia’s article in the Atlantic Monthly [“Can Poetry Matter?”]. Only very sporadically do I read poetry. I don’t think I have anything to offer you.
Christian Darren, screenwriter: I read probably 100 percent more poetry in my 20s than I do now in my 30s, which is indicative of how people are romantic in their 20s and pragmatic in their 30s. I once read a lot of romantic poetry, which I cribbed and sent on to various loves of mine as if I’d written it myself. I don’t know anyone who reads poetry or mentions it. I’d have ã to say that poetry, especially if you’re dealing within the narrow parameters of the film community, is far from the reality of what people are looking for. Even novels are far afield unless they have a concrete hook, so poetry is several steps beyond that.
Glenn Goldman, owner, Book Soup: We turn over the poetry section once every 10 months, which is very slow. The section’s intensively stocked for the level of sales. It’s more of a commitment on the part of the bookstore than something designed to generate sales. I have read poetry over time, but not particularly recently. I was a big fan of Yeats and Wallace Stevens, but I pretty much exhausted that. I’d say contemporary poetry is outside my field of interest at the moment. That’s not to say that if someone interesting was brought to my attention I wouldn’t pick him up, but at the moment I’m not reading anyone.
The poetry I see falls more or less into two camps. One is the camp that sits at home and is self-taught, and the other is the people in academia who are writing for their colleagues. I think a lot of the stuff that’s in the first camp is very personal in many respects and hard to sell to the public, and the stuff in the second camp is very esoteric and difficult for the public to understand.
Our best-selling book of poetry for the first six months of the year is The Captain’s Verses by Pablo Neruda, which sold 52 copies. That’s followed by the paperback edition of Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, which only sold 14 copies. After that is a new edition of Borges’ Selected Poems, then Rimbaud’s Complete Works, The Rubáiyat of Omar Khayyám, Henry Rollins, Twenty Love Poems (Neruda again), something by Fernando Pessoa, then a gift edition of the Neruda, then another Neruda, and Rilke’s Selected Poems.
Doug Dutton, owner, Dutton’s Brentwood Bookstore: Our sales figures for poetry have gone up appreciably over the last three years. I don’t know what the reason for it is. Is it Il Postino? Did that capture the popular imagination? Is it because there are a lot of readings around town that weren’t here before? There does seem to be a legitimate poetry phenomenon. Why it is beats the hell out of me. Must be the millennium.
Callie Khourie, screenwriter: I’ve been to a few poetry readings, which I always enjoy more than I think I’m going to before I go. I read Emily Dickinson and Rilke, and the Spoon River Anthology and stuff like that, just whatever I come across or what somebody turns me on to. A lot of the new poetry I read [is] in various literary digests, like The Paris Review or Nimrod, and we actually get a magazine called Writers & Poets, so I read a lot of it in there.
It’s so hard to talk about poetry, because I so rarely do it. It’s not like reading a book or seeing a film, which is a more communal thing. I read it, I think about it, and I forget about it. But I don’t really talk about it. Louise Gluck’s House on the Marshland is a fantastic book. Oh, and of course Auden’s poems blow my mind. I would find it almost impossible to pick one poem by him, because for me, each one is such an emotional experience. I also like to read Rimbaud in the bathtub. My copy is completely mildewed from sitting by the bathtub.
Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW’s Bookworm: [The reason people aren’t interested in poetry] is a very simple one, and it’s so sad it’s almost unbearable to think about. Randall Jarrell said in A Sad Heart at the Supermarket that in the hornbook of his grandmother, the children’s primer for elementary school contained selections from the Bible, Shakespeare, The Pilgrim’s Progress, all kinds of things. If you’ve grown up with this being how you were taught to read, it’s always in your life. Children were once regularly taught to read things that would take them till they were adults to understand, and it would put them in touch with the traditions of their language. We don’t have that in America, you see, and we haven’t had it for years. We once did. My mother, a working woman all her life, remembers her high school Latin. And what she was reading in Latin was not “See Dick run.” She was reading things she only began to understand when she was an adult. And she learned all this in a public school, and as a daughter of parents who didn’t speak English. Most Americans have never been put in the presence of the greatnesses of our own language in any sense — not multicultural, not classical, not dead-white-male. In fact, if you think about it, most of us grew up reading books not written by an author but by a committee whose sole concern was that you learned to read, not that you enjoy reading.
In my neighborhood, the guys who deliver pizza come from all over the world, and they tell me that America is the first country they’ve been to where the houses are not full of books. That’s what they tell me when they see all the books I have lying around.
Michael Tolkin, novelist, director and screenwriter: I do read a lot of poetry. I try to keep in mind Edmund Wilson’s dictum that you should read something luminous every night. I’m not that adventurous when it comes to single volumes by new poets. I like the anthologies, like The Best American Poetry, because then someone else has done the work of discovering people for me. Generally I go for the warhorses: Williams, Stevens, Frost, though the Frost I like is the manic-depressive swamp Yankee, not the kindly farmer. I don’t know or read any contemporary L.A. poets. I’ll read whoever gets published in The New Yorker or the London Review of Books or whatever intellectual journals have poetry in them. I don’t know what it is about poetry, but I like it. I like geniuses. In collected works, I’m drawn to the last 15 pages or so. I like seeing what people wrote before they died.