In fact, I'm simply making a modest proposal that poetry month be shifted from April, when there's already a good deal of poetry in the air, to November, when we could actually use a few blasts of it from the printed page.
New books of poetry appear in significant numbers at this time of year, their authors (and publishers) hoping for sales from shoppers looking for something light and relatively inexpensive to get for Aunt Tillie, who is never going to make her way through the new biography of U.S. Grant, though she might enjoy the new Sharon Chmielarz collection, little eternities.
I'm not trying to suggest that poetry is invariably sweet, frivolous, and inconsequential. More often people complain that poetry is unnecessarily difficult and bewildering. I would argue that whatever else it is, poetry is of the essence of life. It is never theoretical, never political, always actual. Description becomes speech, thought becomes drama. The unstated punch-line of every poem is something on the order of "Well I'll be darned!" or "Who would have thought it?"
There are times, however, when the latent drama of poetry is difficult to summons. The words lie flat, the rhythm eludes us, we're wondering what the "point" is. November is also a time of poetry readings, as authors set up events to promote their new works.
Hilary and I attended several last week. On Monday Michael Dennis Browne read at Magers & Quinn from Chimes, his new collection of shorter poems. "I am a happy man tonight," he said, and it was easy to see why. His children were there, including his son, who flew in from California as a surprise. There were old friends like Louis Jenkins and Norita Dittberner-Jax, and new collaborators like composer David Evan Thomas and Nodin Press publisher Norton Stillman.
Michael told us stories about his father and mother—stories you won't find in the book. The poems in the collection are drawn from every phase in his career, and Michael was clearly relishing the return journey, though he also read one more recent bitter-sweet poem in which he imagines his family sitting around the fire at the cabin once he's gone.
A few days later we stopped in at Common Good Books to hear a trio of poets: Joyce Sutphen, Tim Nolan, and Sharon Chmielarz, read from their books. Their styles could not have been more different. Joyce has a twinkly eye and a slow, soft delivery, Tim used the blunt comedic approach to good effect, and Sharon reminded me of my senior high English teacher, Mrs. Deutsch, a tall and stern but kindly woman whose insights into literature went far beyond anything we could comprehend.
Poems about cats, envelopes of time, shit, a yellow tea cup, an uncooperative alarm clock. A good mix. We ran into Mike Hazard and his wife, Tressa, on the street before the reading and had a pleasant chat. (Mike took the photo of Joyce Sutphen you see below.)
I get the impression that most of the people who attend these events know the artists on stage as friends, teachers, fellow-travelers, but that's not a bad thing. Rather, it's a community get-together, made more interesting by the fact that the specific attendees who show up differ from event to event. To me, the important thing is to hear the words given a face and a voice, embodied in a delivery. New Critics be damned, the tone of the accompanying banter also adds to the effect.
When we got home from the event, I took Mike's book, The World Is Not Altogether Bad, and read a few poems to Hilary while she chopped some onions for the frozen pizza.
We spent a few days at a cabin on the south shore of Lake Superior recently, and while we were there I was reminded that decades ago I wrote a poem about the nearby village of Port Wing. When we got home I scoured the basement "archives" and found it before long, in the midst of other scraps of juvenilia. I was inspired by the discovery to assemble a collection of my own work—thirty poems in forty years. I formatted the ones that seemed half-decent into a little book that will be available on Amazon soon. (Oh, goody!) The rest I dumped into the trash.
The last line of the port wing poem always bothered me, and it still does. Wrong rhythm, wrong effect. If you can think of an alternative please let me know soon, before I go ahead and approve the proof.
Here it is:
A stark white church near a wet highway.
The wooden floor of a grocery.
Whitefish wrapped in butcher-paper.
A squat, fieldstone bungalow.
Acres of pasture, dotted with homes.
A pine belt. Tourist cabins—For Sale.
Reeds, a bridge, a cluster of glamourless
Boats; a fisherman, reeling in.
At Port Wing, a red berry or a
Flock of cedar waxwings in a tree
Takes on a quality of madness...
endless waves against the levee.