Sunday, March 21, 2010

poultry night

I wanted to begin this blog post with a picture of the sky here on Twin Peaks. Alas, my camera sucks. Every attempt of mine to capture an image of the sky in all its awesomeness failed as badly as the crap picture of the city lights from my window in my previous post.

Instead, I lifted this shot from davidyuweb's flickr photos to give you some idea of what I'm talking about...'s the kind of sky you get when a pissed-off wizard is standing on a mountaintop.

I thought this image of the Twin Peaks skyline characterized my mood after returning from an open mic poetry reading a few weeks ago. When I moved into my new place, I vowed to seek out the various open readings in the city. The first I attended was at a bar in the Mission District on my way home from work. Oddly enough, I knew the bartender tending bar that evening -- Zoe. I knew her from when I last lived in the city almost ten years ago. Then, she worked at the Mauna Loa in Pacific Heights. Running into her was odd luck, and kismet that it happened to be on poetry night. She offered a perspective on poetry that I found interesting.

"We call it 'poultry night'," Zoe said, referring to her and the other bartenders.

"Why is that?"

"Oh, I don't know," she said.

While talking to her, I got the sense that this deprecating name didn't have to do as much with a dislike for poetry as it did with the less than tipping-friendly crowd that it attracted.

"You know what you should do? You should serve wings during 'poultry night'. I'd like to see poets try to read their verse while their audience was sucking away at chicken bones," I said. "It would separate the wheat from the chaff."

"You know, some of the poets are fun to hear," she said, "but most I'd rather not listen to."

"I hear what you're saying," I said.

After participating in one of the more forgettable poetry readings I've attended, I found myself thinking about Zoe's perspective and the reasons underlying its salience. There have been many essays written about the "death of poetry" or the "problem with poetry." They pose arguments in a myriad of meandering vectors that end up pointing toward one commonality -- either an implicit or explicit critique of our post-post-modern culture (Should I add another 'post-' to that? I don't know. I haven't been on a campus in a couple of years.) for either a) not being able to appreciate the nuanced art poetry is, and/or b) discouraging would-be poets from the practice by enticing our best and brightest creative minds in other directions. How many great poets have we lost to the advertising industry? Or screenplay writing? Or iPhone app development?

While reading an older essay of Stephen Dobyns, I began to wonder if the problem doesn't lie in how we try to cultivate an interest in poetry. Having had this interest cultivated at an early age, this is not a question I've really ever considered. I've been consumed with a nonfiction project these last few months and removed from thoughts about poetry, though. When I decided to return, having let too much time pass since I'd last read a poem or about one, I picked up Dobyns' essay. I read him with the understanding that his love and knowledge of poetry would inspire me as it had done before. So I was shocked to find myself disagreeing with him vehemently upon reading his analysis of the French poet, Jean Follian.

The poem he analyzes is "The Women Who Sew Livery" (in translation by W.S. Merwin). Here's Merwin's translation of the poem:

When night falls
the women who sew livery
stop and wait to be given the light they wish for.
The town is covered with snow,
it is then that they sing
and the passer-by hears in the birdless street
the warm clear voices rising
from those girls who make clothes for valets
and he goes off sad and alone
to phantom dinners.

I've read and re-read this poem (and typed it out here, as well) and for the life of me, I can't set this poem alongside the poetic genius Dobyns ascribes to it. The way he reads into it, you'd think this was a masterpiece -- and I would, too. Back in the day when I was a student, if Dobyns was my professor and discussed this poem in class the way he does in this essay ("The Passerby in the Birdless Street" in his Best Words, Best Order) I would think I was lacking in some crucial regard, that I didn't have the insight or capability to comprehend what this great poet Follian was expressing in his simple verse.

Fact is, this poem does nothing for me. And it's not because I don't understand it. (I understand it all too well after Dobyns' essay.) It's not lost to me through Merwin's translation (I know Merwin translated it as well as anyone could). I can place myself in the context and time period of the poem. I even agree with the argument Dobyns' is making in the essay -- that poetry educates the emotions, and in doing so provides us an invaluable service. It serves to remove human beings from their own existential isolation by linking them in an empathetic way through language to a better understanding of the human condition. It helps us understand others and ourselves better by tapping at our root humanity.

But I think Follian's poem sucks. I think many better poems could have been substituted in its place and provided stronger examples for his argument. When I was a student, I would be inclined to write a paper refuting the praises Dobyns touches this poem with (for example -- the line "and he goes off sad and alone" -- tell me that there isn't a creative writing professor, anywhere, that wouldn't red-marker the fuck out of this line if submitted by one of his or her students.)

That line is unimportant, though, so is the poem and Dobyns' reading of it; what's important is what I realized about a lot of the education in the art of poetry that I received -- that since the form more than any other is governed by the emotive, what is 'cliche emotive' and 'nuanced emotive' is entirely a subjective argument. I've had some colossally shitty poetry professors who've argued like lawyers for poems guilty of poetic atrocities, and I nodded my head in class to their arguments. And I wasn't the only one. Perhaps this is what sucks about poetry -- its arbitrariness -- but it's also what initially attracted me to it -- the fact that it is a lawless proving grounds where, like blog writing, anything goes. Maybe now that I'm getting older poetry seems too lawless; perhaps a sheriff needs brought into town. Total stinking dogshit can be argued to be sweet, sweet French pastry, and eventually you just want to give up arguing. You break down, throw up your hands and concede, "OK I'll eat this dogshit pastry now." I think this is what underlies the problem with poetry and why our night is disparaged as 'poultry night'.

No comments: