Poetry receives pretty shabby treatment nowadays. Only a handful of people seem to read contemporary writers, and even fewer try to discuss it. Try bringing up Sharon Olds or Donald Hall at a party and see how far you get. You'd think there would be a renaissance in full swing by now in our attention-deficit society. A great poem is often a perfect gem of language, story-telling and rhythm all tied together in a two-minute package. You can read one just about anywhere and at anytime.
The efforts to fight the demise of poetry in this country are almost laughable. The biggest push is National Poetry Month in April. It's a great way to ghettoize an entire genre of literature into the cruelest month, by giving people an excuse not to read it during the rest of the year. The U.S. Poet Laureate, who receives a stipend of $35,000 (whoppee!), does his or her best to spread poetry throughout the land by organizing readings and lectures. Funny, the Poet Laureate is not expected or invited to compose and read at most official government functions or events. We wouldn't want a poet actually operating in the real world. Charles Simic, a wonderful poet who most Americans haven't even heard of, currently occupies the position.
It was with this in mind that I was a bit dubious when a co-worker wanted to start a poetry book club at the store called The Living Poets Society. Sure, I'd join, but who else would show up? Was there anyone else hungry to discuss poetry? What would happen after we read Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, David Whyte and Ted Kooser, the only four living poets that sell with any regularity? Well, it turns out that there are a number of very dedicated poetry readers out there. Perhaps there's life yet in the form that gave us Shakespeare's sonnets and Keats' odes.
Our first book was Kooser's Delights & Shadows. A rather bland affair for my taste, it didn't feature much wordplay. Kooser's tendency to sum up his poems with a cloying closing line almost made me hurl the book across the room a couple of times. However, the former Poet Laureate was the focus of an excellent discussion between eight poetry-reading die-hards. The level of the conversation was far better than what I've grown used to when discussing novels in book clubs. Kooser's strengths (his brevity and economy of language), and faults (his pandering to non-poetry readers) were detailed. It also seemed that each reader brought a different perspective to bear on his work.
Lucia Perillo, a poet that I did not know, was up next. We discussed her magnificent book, Luck is Luck, on Tuesday night. Surprisingly, all but one person returned from the previous month and three new members joined us despite an all-day snowstorm. True, it might have been the promise of fresh cheese (the head of a local goat cheese company is in the group) and all the wine you could drink that got people to venture out among the swirling snowflakes.
Unlike Kooser, Perillo doesn't serve out pablum for the masses, and I was curious what the others would think of her wild language and her complex ideas. She turned out to be a huge hit and virtually everyone appreciated her more than Kooser, which gave me great hope for the future. We delved a great deal into Perillo's way of encapsulating several interrelated ideas into one poem. After mulling over the description of "stream-of-consciousness" for a few minutes, we eventually settled on "associative" because it better represented the controlled excesses of her writing.
One of the pure joys of reading her is to follow the ideas in a poem like "Le Deuxieme Sexe." Over the course of the piece, she goes from Simone de Beauvoir to a college girl camping trip to drying out a water-logged book in an oven to getting stuck doing the laundry while your man hits on all your friends, and then back to de Beauvoir. Perillo sums it all up with her trademark humor: "Still,/ she gave me one lesson that sticks, which is:/ do not take a paperback camping in the rain/ or it may swell to many times its original size,/ and if you start with a big book you'll end up/ with a cinder block."
As we discussed the book, I noticed our members' criticisms fell into patterns that we started with the Kooser book. One man values economy and conciseness. He previously stated he didn't like to read poems longer than one page. However, despite telling us he stopped reading Perillo's two-page poems at the end of the first page, it turned out that he was quite familiar with the second pages. His suggestions for certain cuts that would have allowed her to fit the poem on one page was met by the sly recommendation by another reader that a change in type-size might do the trick.
One woman loves rhythm, and she was the harshest critic of the book, insisting that Perillo just didn't swing for her. After a particularly passionate plea for rhythm, the man next to her simply stated, "Who could ask for anything more?" We also have a guy who can put every poem into its place in literary history--whether it's a confessional piece harking back to Anne Sexton or a description of landscape evoking Robert Frost.
I'm the language guy. If the words entertain me, I don't really care too much about what they mean or even the ideas. I revel in lines like these from Perillo's poem "Nathan's":
"By day, its neon resembled barbed wire:
this mutant hybrid of hot dog and man.
Inside, the hairnet battalions rafted
potato knishes through white water grease
and tongued the wieners into buns' white seams,
where each sprawled like a lurid odalisque."
It's more than Perillo's language or ideas that thrilled me as a reader. She's an original. I've never read poems that did quite what hers do. She finds humor in the most morose of topics (breast cancer, death, the Catholic religion) and she finds meaning in the most trivial moments (wearing a new hat in church, going to Nathan's hot dog stand). I felt like I was plunged, through her images, into the bones and marrow of life in a way that non-poetry literature just can't quite achieve.
The title Luck is Luck comes from the poem "Shrike Tree." In that piece, Perillo details how shrikes pluck smaller birds out of the air and pin them to the thorns of a dead hawthorn. It's a frightening image in and of itself, but then she relates it to her own condition--she has multiple sclerosis. Here are the final stanzas of the poem:
"They hang there, desiccating
by the trail where I walked, back when I could walk,
before life pinned me on its thorn.
It is ferocious, life, but it must eat,
then leaves us with the artifact.
Which is: these black silhouettes in the midday sun,
strict and jagged, like an Asian script.
A tragedy that is not without its glamour.
Not without the runes of the wizened meat.
Because imagine the luck! --to be plucked from the air,
to be drenched and dried in the sun's bright voltage--
well, hard luck is luck, nonetheless.
With a chunk of sky in each eye socket.
And the pierced heart strung up like a pearl."
Next up is Robert Hass' new book, Time and Materials, on January 15th. I can't wait. We didn't finish the wine and we've got more goat cheese coming. Our host always bakes something scrumptious, which helps warm up those cold nights. Besides, if the food isn't enough, I'm sure I'll have some interesting language to chew on.
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