Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Slowest Poet I Know

Several years ago, in one of many moments of wavering between getting a doctorate or making something of myself, I signed up for a poetry class with Marie Ponsot. She spent a good part of the first session introducing us to each other through our work : she read one of each of our submissions. It was kind of excruciating, for Marie is the slowest poet I know. A line break occasions a moment of silence and reflection; a period allows one to go out and grab a cuppa. Yet in the course of ten sessions with her and some very nice fellow-travelers, I came to appreciate her velocity.

For Marie, poetry is an art of attentiveness. In part, she means fixating on detail, as in her poem "Explorers Cry out Unheard"

What I have in mind is the last wilderness.

I sweat to learn its heights of sun, scrub, ants,
its gashes full of shadows and odd plants
as inch by inch it yields to my hard press.

Marie wanted us to take in each tuft, clod, and moss-heap and turn them into bricks of language, foundations for saying the things she believed each of us had a god-given need to say.

What she had to say usually involved the ways the things of the world held not only poetry together, but also bound her to the rest of us:

And the way behind me changes as I advance.
If interdependence shapes the biomass,
though I plot my next steps by pure chance
I can't go wrong. Even willful deviance
connects me to all the rest. The changing past
includes and can't excerpt me…

Marie's technique of teaching attentiveness was aural. She insisted that our first encounters with each other's poetry come through listening. The parts of the poem that were heard most clearly – that was the heart of what we had to say to each other. And so we spent a semester reading aloud, listening, telling each other what we heard.

Marie believed in metrics, and found cadences everywhere. One evening she arrived in class late; she'd seen a dance performance. The dancers had chanted as they moved, clapping in rhythms that Marie identified in the manner of the Greeks: anapests, iambs, troches. In the way that a certain frequency of energy can destroy a bridge, she thought these collections of stress could kick you, beautiful and terrible.

Marie's teaching seldom made individual poems better. Instead, she made us better poets. She encouraged silliness, formal bravado, improbable corralling of verbs. She could make a poem turn in on its own logical underpinnings. Take the aforementioned explorers:

… Memory grants
just the nothing it knows, and my distress
drives me toward the imagined truths I stalk,
those savages.

This interconnectedness thing may not be all it's cracked up to be. What is it that I think I'm seeking, and how will I know when I find it?

It's the kind of improbable yet logical reversal Marie loves, and she comes about it slowly, in due time, giving each vowel its luxuriant breath, until, sometimes abruptly, she stops:

… Warned by their haunting talk,
their gestures, I guess they mean no. Or yes.

And here is this thing undone. This aged lady, crossing the street at a geologic pace, has just shot herself and her readers with a dart poisoned with god knows what root, and that, of course, is the reason the explorers cry out unheard.

To undo what you have done, to take risks with words, to listen for the separate cadences of keyboards, city buses, elms, or Pop Rocks, to say precisely what you have to say: that slowness is what Marie taught. Or, summed up in a single sentence (mantra, motto, prophesy):

"English is more powerful than you are."

Thanks to islandtime for reminding me.


twiffer said...

to paraphrase (nash, if i correctly recall), poems should be chewy. sort of like good caramel; stick-to-your-fillings, gooey and good. so really, there is no need for speed anyway. except, of course when there is. but that's different.

detail though, detail's the thing. go too fast and you miss it.

Keifus said...

I don't, I must admit, read a whole lot of poetry (between twiffer and zeus-boy and hipparchia tho...you guys are a bad influence), and I listen to even less. Most of my inadvertant listening has come from the mouth of Garrison Keillor, who not only plods his way through but manages to imbue about 10 pounds of pomposity to your typical four ounces of doggerel. The handful of other readings I've encountered haven't contradicted this general impression.

Part of the problem is that when read, I get a good cadence going in my head all on my own. It's not like a soundtrack--it's not listening--but more of an awareness of how everything should be sounding. (Partly, that was practiced in all of the technical writing, since anything that "reads well" is less likely to be jumped on by referees or professors.) So when someone else reads aloud, it really buggers up my internal rhythm sometimes.

On the other hand, I can see how effective a teaching tool that could be. When teh student is dangling on every word, it would really heighten awareness of the words themselves.

Damn education. It's that barrier that keeps you from getting into a higher state. It takes a little extra energy to pass.


twiffer said...

k: listening to a poet read their own work is not always for the best. some simply don't read well.

poetry is great to read though. specially when you've got short reading windows (such as on the metro or on the can).

some poets i like (i'm sure others will disagree):

>william carlos williams
>howard nemerov
>john donne
>wb yeats
>wallace stevens
>seamus heaney (ZB will disagree here, from what i've read, but i'm not sure why)
>elizabeth bishop
>killarny clary (prose poetry)
>czeslaw milosz
>paul guest (from slate poems, but he's actually good)
>robert frost (yes, i'm a sucker for the new englandyness)

i could likely list more, but i have to do some work, alas.

Keifus said...

I find that it takes less time to read, but it requires greater concentration. I don't always have the energy.

K (but ask where I do some of my best thinking...)

twiffer said...

ah, but you can read just one, and mull over it for the rest of the day (or longer, cause the best stick in your mind).

a poem by tsurayuki, translated from the japanese by kenneth rexroth:

No, the human heart
Is unknowable.
But in my birthplace
The flowers still smell
The same as always.

short, sweet and deceptively simple.

seriously, in with the magazines and catalogs, leave a book of poetry in the throne room. heck, pick up a norton anthology. that way you'll get a wider exposure. poetry is an art, and art needs an audience. without readers/listeners, a poem is simply a bunch of words.