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Chard deNiord

Chard deNiord

Chard deNiord is the new Vermont Poet Laureate. The author of five books of poetry, Interstate (The University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), The Double Truth (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011), Night Mowing (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), Sharp Golden Thorn (Marsh Hawk Press, 2003) and Asleep in the Fire (University of Alabama Press, 1990), he is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Providence College. He is also the author of a book of essays and interviews with senior American poets Lucille Clifton, Ruth Stone, Jack Gilbert, Maxine Kumin, Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell and Donald Hall, titled Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs: Conversations and Reflections on 20th Century American Poets (Marick Press, 2011). In 2001, he cofounded the New England College MFA Program in Poetry, where he worked as program director until 2007. He lives in Westminster West, Vermont with his wife Liz.

The Trouble with Poetry

Poetry, at least good poetry, is hard, if not impossible to write, which is why poets feel so compelled to write the next poem—"To get it right," as Jack Benny remarked about his joke-telling. You hear or read a good poem and think, I could have written that, and then you try only to find out so soon just how squirrely inspiration is indeed. You get something down only to discover it sounds too private or ordinary or just surprisingly different from what you intended. "That's not what I meant at all," T.S. Eliot laments in the thin disguise of J. Alfred Prufrock. How true. What happened to all the sense and music I was going to make? you ask. Yes, occasionally a good poem just arrives on your psychic doorstep as a gift and you think, Now that was easy. Too easy. I recall such a visitation occurring to me when I was at divinity school several decades ago. I had just attended a lecture on the Genesis creation stories and was exiting the lecture hall when these words suddenly echoed in my head: "And Adam fell to his knees/ and prayed, Lord, Lord please,/ please forgive me,/ while Eve lit a cigarette looking on/ waiting for him to finish so they could move along." Just a ditty, but I think these jaundiced lines played a big part in helping me decide to become a poet instead of a priest—just this poetic charge of a short four-line poem, but enough to encourage me to try again, and then again, until I was hooked like an addict on the opiate of poetry.

The muse is just this generous and cruel, enticing her scribes with a few memorable lines, then casting them into what an anonymous mystic in the late 14th century called "the cloud of unknowing." And doubt, too, I would add. Every poet who has emerged from her adolescence with a need to continue writing has experienced this initiation. She works at her desk in a well-lighted study but writes in the dark of witnessing her inspiration turn from what she thinks might be immortal poetry to a jumble of words on the page. Perhaps Percy Bysshe Shelley described the trouble with writing best in his essay "The Defence of Poetry": "It didn't take much for poetic inspiration to come, just like a blow of a wind. . .as soon as you start composing a poem, the inspiration is gone."

Writing poetry is a Sisyphean task. No poet ever writes the poem to end all poems. The poet, therefore, must love pushing her boulder up the proverbial hill. It's about the pushing, and then listening as the boulder descends back down the hill. If the poet ever comes to think there is an opposite side of the hill, then she writes under the delusion that she can say the unsayable, or that the truth is ultimately sayable, or that it is possible to escape the human condition and still write about it. The memorable poem is as mortal as the poet, as multifaceted as the truth, and as surprisingly beautiful. It all but touches the divine. As far as the poem's music is concerned, it is the sound of the poet's figurative boulder rolling back down the hill.

Ruth Stone, in her interview with me, went so far as to say, "Even as a child, I would hear a poem coming toward me from across the universe. I wouldn't hear it, I would feel it, and it would come right toward me. If I didn't catch it, if I didn't run in the house and write it down it would go right through me and back into the universe. So I'd never see it again. I'd never hear it again. I've lost about 99% of my poems this way." The inherent trouble with poetry for both the poet and her reader, as Stone's comment testifies to so unabashedly, has a lot to do with its inscrutable mystery. But this mysterious trouble is also poetry's mystical strength. Yes, the strong poet's boulder resounds with brilliant new poetry as it rolls back down the hill, but any widespread confirmation of its music by critics and readers alike often takes a while, in some cases a long while, as evidenced by American readers' remarkably slow embrace of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman's genius.

So, how is a poet supposed to know when she's written a good poem, one asks next. Poets, especially poets in our cyber age, crave confirmation of their work almost immediately, not later. In his poem, "Berryman," W.S. Merwin recalls this encounter with his undergraduate teacher at Princeton:
I had hardly begun to read
How can you ever be sure
That what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't

you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write.
The poet writes in the dark, then, with an incurable obsession. Rilke famously dramatizes his obsession in a letter to the young Mr. Kappus in this way: "This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple 'I must,' then build your life in accordance with this necessity...." Needless to say, if the answer doesn't "ring out in assent," then one doesn't possess the blind faith necessary to keep rolling his boulder up the hill, which is more than understandable and forgivable. Poetry's not for the meek, maybe the foolish by all worldly standards, but not the meek.

So far, I've made the task of writing poetry sound counterintuitive and masochistic, stressing a few of its most difficult realities, namely its dearth of both monetary and literary rewards and its lamentably scant readership. So, what exactly is in it—the act of writing—for the poet? "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" wrote Emily Dickinson. But Miss Nobody wrote nearly two thousand poems. Reading Dickinson's letters to the editor of The Atlantic, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, about publishing reminds me of this succinct joke. "Hit me," said the masochist to the sadist. "No," responded the sadist. But little did Higginson know that Dickinson already knew the joke. Publishing was as far from her mind as "firmament to fin." Her submissions were ruses. But for most poets, especially today, publishing is their obsession and all too often a premature goal, while editors' acceptances of nascent work are too often unwitting refutations for those poets who seek notoriety over quality. Better an immediate no, like the sadist's response to the masochist, than an undiscerning yes. But back to the struggle poets put themselves through to get it right. This agon is a double-sided currency with the agon of configuring the best words in the best order on one side and the ecstasy of approaching this impossibility on the other. Or as Dickinson wrote: "For each ecstatic instant/We must an anguish pay/ In keen and quivering ratio to the ecstasy." It is a selfless, solitary ecstasy at first, the sense you've got something down in any form—formal or free, verse or prose—that's memorable, definitive, beautiful, musical and resonant with what the great prose poet Russell Edson called "poetry mind." Enough to keep you going. A big secret you've told yourself simply because you've found the words for "it." So, you're perennially on a spiritual diet as a poet. Your spiritual body innately thin. "Who will have me?" asks Ruth Stone in her poem, "Bargain." "'I will,' says Poverty." The poet doesn't have a choice, as Rilke informed the young Mr. Kappus. She's like Jonah, on a mission in which she can't avoid trying to define what's most human and verbally beautiful in essential language, even if she doesn't want to. Even if she finds herself in the desert with no relief except for an occasional shade tree that also shrivels in the heat. So she's prophetic by default, in addition to being artistic.

These facts about the nature of poetry were confirmed for me in a series of interviews I conducted and with seven eminent senior poets (Jack Gilbert, Maxine Kumin, Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, Ruth Stone, Lucille Clifton, and Donald Hall) between 2004 and 2011 and then published in 2012 in a book titled Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs. I'd like to cite a few of the comments of these poets on the surprising, ironic, humbling, ecstatic, and grievous experience of writing, beginning with Jack Gilbert:

CD: Why do you feel your pride and strength were also your weaknesses?

J.G. I came to see what performance does to someone. It rots you. You become so vain. This is why I refuse to give readings. Because I am weak, it's hard to resist the power. You're like an actor who can capture the audience with your words, your style, your appearance.

C.D. Then where does your real power come from?

J.G. I don't trust myself. I love the effect so much. It's like if you have the power to make women fall in love with you. I don't want to become that person, that performer, that figure who can intoxicate his audience. If I wanted to I could make a lot of money. But then I wouldn't want to give it up.

C.D. What is the power in you to resist the power?

J.G. I would like to think it's the strength of real pride.

C.D. How do you distinguish real pride from false pride?

J.G. Real pride gives up, false pride keeps performing.

C.D. How do you feel now in looking back on your life, your career?

J.G. Grateful. I lived my life so richly in so many ways. By falling in love. By being poor. I lived my life in such a wide range of being me.

Maxine Kumin:

C.D. Were you emboldened by Anne [Sexton] to write [such poems as] "Sperm," "The Thirties Revisited," "Heaven and Anus," "Life's Work," "The Jesus Infection," and "Song for Seven Parts of the Body," especially after her death?

M.K. When Anne [Sexton] killed herself in October of 1974, I felt for a long time that the "fun" had gone out of writing poems. The fun of sharing early worksheets, the fun of reshaping, cutting, adding, the whole sport of revving up, of developing the poem. And the other loss—I am speaking of our professional relationship—was that she would not be there as we spread the poems for the next book out on the floor and tested what poems went with what others, what comprised a section, etc. The fun of format, if I may call it that, something we had always done for and with each other."

Galway Kinnell:

CD: One thing that struck me when you visited my creative writing class last year was your comment that you were reluctant to call yourself a "poet."

GK: A poet should not call himself a "poet." Being a poet is so marvelous an accomplishment that it would be boasting to say it of oneself. I thought this well before I read that Robert Frost took the same view.


CD: In the last poem of Strong Is Your Hold, a poem titled "Why Regret," you write, "Doesn't it outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concert/ to wake in the night and find ourselves holding hands in our sleep." These are actually the last two lines of the poem. They make the valiant claim about what means most to you, not the brilliant concert, or perhaps poem also by implication, but waking in the middle of the night to find yourself holding hands with your beloved.

GK: Is it a valiant claim, or is it a wonderful, surprising realization? Isn't to find in a moment that we, who chose years ago to live as a couple, are still thrilled to be with each other, isn't that about the most blessed thing of all?

CD: Yes, and especially heartening to hear from someone who has achieved as much as you as a poet.

GK: Art is wonderful, but the moment love is smashed, darkness falls, deafness falls, nothing survives as it was.

Donald Hall:

Poetry is a device for saying something and taking it back at the same time. It's the device for double-mindedness or many-mindedness. No emotion is pure, but frequently we are aware of one and not the other. In poetry somehow you come out with both.

Ruth Stone:

When I'm writing I'm not experiencing anything. It's funny. The writing is separate. I don't write out of the memory or experiencing a memory. The writing is separate.

Robert Bly:

CD: Could you describe exactly what you meant by the "new imagination" in your 1958 essay that appeared in your journal The Fifties?

RB: It's an imagination that allows the unconscious to come in with its various ignorances and brilliances. And when Jim [Wright] and I grew up, the poems, as in The Kenyon Review, were well controlled by the rational part of the mind, which had only a little bit of playfulness. But that's a little different than letting the wolf in the house.

Lucille Clifton:

Poets have to speak out of what is truth for them. Everything we say has so many meanings. I'm shy. I'm really quite shy. Nobody believes it.

CD: But you're've been sane the whole time we've been talking.

LC: Thank you. To be sane in this world is crazy.

Now that Ruth Stone, Lucille Clifton, Jack Gilbert, and Galway Kinnell have all passed, I wonder how they would respond to an article titled "Poetry Is Going Extinct, Gov. Data Show" that appeared in the Washington Post on April 24th of this year. I would like to presume in answering for them after listening to their answers to my questions about the state of contemporary poetry in America. Nothing has changed about the character or necessity of poetry as "the news that stays news," as "the best words in the best order," as "memorable speech," as "prayers to the unsayable," as "the maximum efficiency of language," but the American commercial culture that wants to make the argument that poetry is losing its vital currency to the point of diminishing return has. Poetry is like a jealous lover; it demands full and uninterrupted attention. It insists on being memorized and studied over and over. Like Eros it was born poor and has remained so to keep its blessing. A star pitcher makes more in one game than a poet does in a lifetime. It's diachronic at its core, dismissing mere information as a potentially fatal distraction when viewed as more than subject matter.

We now live in an unprecedented time of crisis for poetry's readership: so many voices behind the microphone in a crowded room, too much to hear, read, and process in a way that poetry requires. Devoted readers of poetry feel like they have to be cyber wizards with a Luddite's mentality, and that seems often impossible for many. I hear poetry kicking and screaming as our high-tech culture lowers it slowly into the acid vat of synchronicity where no news remains memorable for long as mere information. So Mr. Ingram, the author of this Washington Post article on the boring, misprized topic of "the death of poetry," has his eye on completely the wrong issue: the data on readers of poetry rather than poetry itself, or rather the synchronic infection that's consuming what's left of our culture with the virulence of a mind-eating bacteria. Strong poetry is still being written, but how to preserve it in the blue light? How to keep up with our wizardry without sleeping with it? How to remember that just a few good lines are worth more than a million bytes? If our pundits and cultural watchdogs shift their perspective from cultural trends to the subject itself, then they might wake up to see that it's the culture that's dying, not poetry.

Like the speaker in Whitman's Canto 32 of "Song of Myself", the poet but uses the stallion a minute, then resigns [him] with a rhetorical question: "Why do I need your paces when I out-gallop them?/ Even as I stand or sit passing faster than you." Of course, the flipside of this is the reality that poets rarely if ever know for sure when they're actually outpacing the stallion. How easy indeed it is to write bad poetry when you think you're writing good poetry at the speed of light. But even bad writing is often a necessary, even essential, catalyst in the poet's surprising progress toward strong writing. I'm thinking of the scribbled note written in haste or embarrassing awkward admission that ferments into such memorable language as D.H. Lawrence's confession at the conclusion of "Snake": "And I missed my chance with one of the Lords/ Of life/And I have something to expiate:/a pettiness." Or Elizabeth Bishop's early talky drafts of "One Art" that show no sign of that poem's eventual formal eloquence. Like Whitman, both Bishop and Lawrence resigned "the stallion" in their final drafts, proving the human alacrity of their verbal stallions, which transcend literal speed with memorable speech.

But what if, as Christopher Ingram seems so eager to announce in his citation of government data concerning poetry, poetry's readership is "going extinct"? His extrapolation from poetry's readership to poetry itself betrays a telling error, a crooked focus. Is he so eager, like other doomsayers of poetry (there have been many since Dana Gioia's essay, "Can Poetry Matter" in The Atlantic in 1991), to announce poetry's demise in this country? Anyone who loves poetry knows it's alive and well as essential language. "The proof of the poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he absorbs it," Walt Whitman declaimed in 1855 in his preface to Leaves of Grass. An unprecedented amount of new music resounds today in the descents of strong poets' boulders from the summits of their respective mountains. But America's best poets don't await the proof of their country's affectionate absorption of their work behind their boulders. They can't. It would be an enervating distraction from the poems they need to write, as well as an affront to their muse. So, they must endure the contumely of government's data as well as the mystery of their poems' fate.

Who could blame American poets, or any poet, for whining like Elijah on Mt. Horeb before he hears the "still small voice" that tells him to get off the holy mountain; that there are, in fact, far more "faithful" in the land than he realizes. Such whining by poets or prophets is as off-putting as myopic government data or poets writing merely for other poets. Poetry's "holy mountain" is a figurative and sometimes literal monadnock in a landscape of hidden readers—a desolate topos that's also the axis mundi where poets experience a revelation that sanctifies their barren summits. Terrence Des Pres writes most profoundly about this ironically transcendent place in his essay on C.P. Cavafy's poem "Dareios" that appeared in his superb book Praises and Dispraises published in 1988:

      Released from his self-serving plans. . .the poet can assume his true office.

      He can allow the poetic idea its hegemony and write the real thing, a

      poem alive with its time and the true concerns of its audience. Most

      interesting is the way "the poetic idea" persists, awaits the coming of its      

      incarnation. When it asserts itself it lifts the poet beyond his fear, beyond

      his pettiness and mere ambition.

For a poet to embody both exemplary courage and strong poetry simultaneously is rare indeed. But such poets like Cavafy do exist in America.

A fraction of the supposed six percent of poetry's readership know who they are. No one can reveal their identity to anyone else. Citizens must discover them on their own by reading them. That's how poetry works. Through reading, then weighing and considering. The poets themselves wait without knowing they're waiting since they're too busy writing and "rolling" to be absorbed affectionately by their country as the desperately needed truth-tellers they are.


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