Friday, June 25, 2010

Essay: "A modest proposal for poetry inspectors"

By arobinso
October 31, 2008, 10:41AM

All male human beings, I suspect, have, when young and stupid, endured a brief infatuation with a girl who thought she was a poet, and so all men have, at some point in their shuffling existences, suffered through poetry readings during which small quiet poets gripped lecterns like the steering wheels of vast ships, explained at incredible length the circumstances under which they committed their poems like raving sins, whispered their elephantine incoherent epic and then, incredibly, explained at Herculean length how the birds in the poem are actually symbols of revenge, at which point many members of the audience are contemplating the latter, and imagining a world where poets actually do have to get poetic licenses, and swear that they will not suddenly use French phrases in their poems, and vow to never personify favorite body parts of lovers, or write poems in which birds represent anything but birds.

Wouldn't that be cool?

Dreaming about that glorious world a little, a world that would require poetic administrative staff, men and women who would design and inflict licensing exams, and take poems out for test drives, and revoke privileges on grounds of obscurity (busted, Wallace Stevens!), and flag down poems that don't meet clean-language standards, I imagine a raft of poetic inspectors, wearing shoulder patches with William Stafford's gnomic smile, and also a whole corps of poetry injectors, cheerful citizens responsible for bracing up the boring -- editing traffic signs to add a little wit and lilt, repairing droning political sermons, running retreats for ministers whose homilies have no heft, souping up newsletters, spicing up voters' manuals, and sponsoring an annual Switch Day during which, for example, Walt Curtis enlivens the Oregon Legislature and Ted Kulongoski shouts wild poems on the steps of the Multnomah County Library, Lawson Inada is appointed police chief for 24 hours and Ursula K. Le Guin speaks directly by Web camera to every child in every school in Oregon.

Wouldn't that be cool?

Think of the advantages of a world with poetry inspectors and injectors: no Hallmark card ditties, lots more Billy Collins, all copies of "Paradise Lost" returned posthaste to England for imprisonment in the Tower, no one pretending to be influenced by Rimbaud ever again, the admirably clear and piercing Wislawa Szymborska an honored guest on Oprah every week, a small sharp poem on the front page of every newspaper every day, the seething youth of America competing hourly for the coolest arrow of a text-messaged poem, Walt Whitman back in the forefront of the literary canon, a president who opens his weekly press conference quoting Linda Pastan or Marie Ponsot or Mary Oliver ... .

A more musical and rhythmic world, perhaps -- certainly a world with more of the electric darts to the heart that great poems can be; for poetry at its very best is the greatest of literary arts (not the greatest of arts, mind you -- that would be music, or brewing beer), the one with the most power and passion in the least amount of space, the one that tries most gracefully to find the music in the words we swim in, the one that delves deepest into the wild genius of language itself, the one that takes the sounds we make with our mouths and uses them as keys to the deepest recesses of the heart and head.

It is entertaining, at least to grinning essayists, that the price for poetry's occasional unbelievable power is the incredible ocean of self-indulgent, self-absorbed, whinnying, mewling muck produced and published annually under the tattered banner of the Poem; but it is an ancient and useful human truth that every real feat is built on a mountain of failures. For proof consider your short-lived early love affairs, especially the one with the poetess, what was her pen name, Willow? Nighthawk? Kulongoski?

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