How strange, again, that as I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about poetry and literary readings the last week or so (you can read the original post here), that my poet coworker would lend me a book about just that. Fooling With Words is a collection of interviews of poets conducted by television journalist Bill Moyers at the Dodge Poetry Festival.
The Dodge Poetry Festival seems enormous and a bit weird – audiences in the thousands show up to hear some of the best poets in America read, and they clap and cheer and whoop as if they were at a rock concert. Reading about it – hearing the poets talk about their craft, about readings, and sharing their favorite poems – did a lot to restore my faith in good poetry and the existence of interesting and un-icky readings.
I think the problem comes down to how hard it is to make great poetry and how easy it is to write something that looks like a poem. More than one poet in the book compared the art to jazz, which I liked – anyone can improvise on a saxophone, but you have to learn to play before you can start making things up that are beautiful and meaningful. Sure, I can put a bunch of words on a page in a poem-like shape, but only the true poets know how hard writing poetry is.
The biggest difference I saw between the poems in this book (which, almost without exception, I loved) and the poems that I often hear at readings, are that the poems in the book were about things. While most of the poems I’ve heard at readings are vague images and words that are pretty strung together (reeds-the ocean-lilacs-etc.) and have introductions like, “this poem is about sex and death,” the poems in this book tended to be about ordinary things (gardening, marriage, taking your granddaughter to the circus) and used clear, narrative language. Yes, these poems also had deeper meanings, but they were not heavy-handed and they were not out to impress.
One poet, Jane Hirshfield, was asked about her religion. Although she almost never explicitly writes about it, she is a Zen Buddhist who spent several years in a monastery. She describes herself as a “Teahouse Buddhist” – one who never overtly writes about Buddhism, but one whose poetry is filled with it. She explains: ”It refers to leading your life as if you were an old woman who has a teahouse on the side of the road. Nobody knows why they like to go there, they just feel good drinking her tea. She’s not known as a Buddhist teacher… all she does is simply serve tea – but still, her decades of attentiveness are part of the way she does it. No one knows about her faithful attentiveness to her practice, it’s just there, in the serving of her tea and the way she cleans the counters and washes the cups.”
Although Hirshfield is talking about the tacit religion in her poetry, I think that the idea can be expanded to all of poetry – great poets must be teahouse poets. No, there’s no way to tell on the surface which poems have that attentiveness, which poems are filled with real subject matter, faith, and compassion. But, reading them aloud, it’s there – hidden, but obviously affecting each word and line.
For example, while most amateur poetry readings I’ve been to focus on traditionally poetic subjects – love, death, nature, and of course, writing poetry – the poets in this book make contemporary subjects poetic: office conflicts, television, adopting a dog. Sure, all of the latter poems have a deeper layer concerning the former subjects, but the latter poems also tell a story and the latter poems are not afraid to be subtle or even a little commonplace.
The poems in Fooling With Words don’t have to hide behind flowery language or the shock of private subject matter. They are simple. They sound beautiful because the poets have toiled over word choice and rhythm and meter, and then they have worked even harder to make all of their hard work hidden – to make it look clean and easy and natural.
I’m still not sure if I want to go to any more literary reading and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be one of the 4,000 people doing the wave for Kurtis Lamkin at the Dodge Poetry Festival. But it is good to know that there are some wonderful contemporary poets out there, working away quietly in their teahouses.