In order to learn how to write poetry, I had to ‘unlearn’ many of the assumptions I had held about it. Most people will tell you that poetry has something to do with organizing words in a pattern to express and evoke emotions. This was the first assumption that my poetry class had to discard as we began imitating contemporary poets and writing for ourselves. The first lesson was about sound, and we listened carefully to Sylvia Plath reading some of her poems, stopping to note the particular types and orders of sounds. The joke is that the only thing all poets will agree about poetry is that it is “not prose,” and even that can come into question. Poems can become essays, essays can become poems.
In some sense, this is the best time in history for poetry, because now there’s more freedom than ever before with respect to content and form, just as with the other art forms. But I wonder whether this is a victory or defeat for poetry, and for the arts in general? People look at paintings by Mark Rothko and say “I don’t get it” as if there were something to get. Others read about the history behind modern art and defend it as though the intellect and philosophical-mindedness of the artists somehow translates into profundity in the works themselves. They just are, and the experience they display is clearly one of torn-down borders.
During the same time I was getting more deeply involved in reading contemporary poems, I was also reading through the Norton Anthology of English literature, reading poets like Petrarch, Donne, Shakespeare, Jonson, Herrick, Marlowe, Raleigh, Spenser, Sidney, Wyatt, and Pope. The differences between these guys and poets like John Berryman or Elizabeth Bishop are of course, colossal.
It’s much easier for me to understand painting and poetry in terms of music, since music is much more instinctual for me. I’ve never wondered what music is supposed to do, or wondered why people appear to be enthralled by a song. The music with which I identify (I think in stronger way than could ever be socially constructed) is clearly attached to the post-modern world, at various times and in varying degrees; dark, violent, pensive, serious, cold, war-like, brutal, sorrowful, and chaotic. It takes an element of spirituality and makes it relevant for a world with spaceships, cars, computers, phones, satellites, nuclear bombs, and advanced medicine. Nostalgic for another time maybe, but also fully aware that if you were transported to another time, you’d still have that nostalgia, because hardships don’t go away with time, they just take new forms and force us to express and conquer them in new ways.
So I guess that these forms just mirror the times. If they’re alive, the spirit inside of it will speak to you, and you need to make the forms match your experiences, now, in 2014.
Anyhow, here’s the first poem imitation I did, from February 2013, of Wallace Stevens’ “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Hammer
Lying prostrate on a table
Awaiting another laborious day
Is a trusty hammer.
What to do today
A hammer swings from my pocket
Just enough time and too much to do.
A small shard of glass
From an obliterated pane
A strong arm and a passionate disposition
And a hammer’s seductive gaze.
The worker accomplishes little
Without his most vital device
Likewise, the hammer collects dust
Lying forsaken in a box in the cellar.
Master and Pupil
Husband and Wife
Mother and Child
God and Church
King and Slave
Hammer and Nail.
One by one
The hammer attached the building to itself
Connecting wall with floor with ceiling.
The noise of the hammer drowns out the birds
And sends them off
To find a quieter perch from which to acquire mates.
The nails quiver in fear
Piled naked over one another
Wondering who will be next
To suffer the fate that befell their predecessors
Lost to a hammer and an unknown future.
It is no coincidence
That where you find a narrow purpose
And a hardened mind
You find more than a single hammer.
Many lives can be saved
If instead of weapons one finds a hammer
For the same virtues which can aspire to violence
Can aspire to the pounding of steel
The erection of vengeful monuments.
In a glade in the woods of Maine
One may find trees there one day
And gone another day
Buildings built and demolished
Wells dug and filled
Roads crafted and forgotten
But any time the year, any year of the millennium
You will find lumber, crowbar, nail, and hammer.
The hammer moves in familiar motion
Doing what it does best
Falling on the toes of the uninitiated.
There was a man here once
He must have built something
I wonder what he built?
Or perhaps he destroyed?
I feel a hammer in my hands
I feel what he felt.