P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.8 - January 2017
“Are You Famous?”
by David Graham
Chances are, you haven’t read one of my books. I’d be most pleased if you did, naturally, and I’d even sign it for you and write you a mushy dedication. But I’m not holding my breath. And I can’t say I blame you. If you’re a poet, I probably haven’t read one of yours, either. There are many thousands of us these days in the U.S., all scribbling away madly, far too many new books and chapbooks appearing every year for even the most obsessed poetry fan (I certainly am one) to keep up with more than the tiniest fraction.
So I’m pretty sure I speak for most of us in the tribe when I say I’m far from famous. But who is? Well, in terms of true celebrity, Barack Obama is famous. Brad Pitt and Beoncé are currently famous, and so is J. K. Rowling, at least for fantasy fans. Among actual poets, I suppose Robert Frost was one of the last figures to enjoy across-the-board name recognition, I mean cover-of-news-magazine fame--even if most of his countrymen never read beyond “Stopping By Woods” and “The Road Not Taken” in 7th grade English class. Well, maybe “Fire and Ice,” too. . . .
Many years ago, after publishing my first book of poems, I proudly showed my father a notice that had appeared in the newspaper, with a headline saying something like “Local Poet Pens New Book.” “What is a ‘local poet’, anyway?” my highly amused father wondered. “Is it someone who writes about the town council election? Or the best restaurants in town? Or the high school baseball team?”
Way to stroke my ego, Dad!
Yup, most of us are doomed to remain local poets. Even if we are meeting here on the virtual pages of a definitely thriving online poetry journal, we are a smallish clan within a much larger tribe. There are hundreds if not thousands of such communities all across this country, whether online or in-person. In this regard I love to remember Naomi Shihab Nye’s beautiful poem, “Famous,” which she reports was triggered by the most frequent question she hears when visiting school classes. Kids always want to know, “Are you famous?” Even the youngest children, who may not know the difference between Elmer Fudd and T. S. Eliot, do know that fame is a most valuable currency in our culture. So naturally they wish to know if a visitor to their classroom is Someone Important.
Nye’s poetic response is a gentle and sly deconstruction of the concepts of fame and value. She does this mostly by spinning out metaphors:
The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.
The point is plain enough: what is nearest and most familiar to us might have as good a claim as the flickering images of celebrities on TV to be considered famous. As the poem continues, Nye makes her preference quite clear:
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
The poem ends by declaring that she wants to be famous the way “a pulley is famous, / or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, / but because it never forgot what it could do.”
I like that a lot. Let’s call people famous not because of name recognition but according to their integrity and usefulness to others. Instead of continually bemoaning poetry’s alleged unpopularity (and low book sales), perhaps we might celebrate what is important and valuable, which surely includes poetry itself (as distinct from poets) as well as a sense of real community. Chicago’s original Mayor Daley is probably most famous for saying “All politics is local politics.” I am inclined to add that all poetics is local poetics, in some deep sense, whether that means local geographically or local in the metaphoric sense in this brave new internet world, where like-minded folk gather at many virtual campfires.
“Can Poetry Matter?” Dana Gioia wondered in his well known hand-wringing essay of that title. Of course it can! It matters in a thousand different ways and places, every time someone recites a poem at a wedding, or posts a favorite lyric online, or stands up, knees trembling, at a local open mic to read for the first time, or or or. . . . Poetry matters in all the ways it ever did, instructing and delighting as of old.
Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh published a poem in 1960 titled “Epic,” which seems at first to mock the self-importance of rural folk far from the cultural centers:
I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
But as it happens, he’s quite serious. Which is more important, he wonders, some provincial land dispute or what he dismissively calls “The Munich bother,” that is, the awful nationalism that led to World War II? The poem ends as follows:
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
I see no satire on self-important peasantry here. Kavanagh reminds us that we do not live abstractly. We are not nation-states or even religions, but specific individuals, living and dying on specific ground among people we know intimately. Literature grows not from capital H History, but out of the most particular circumstances. So as for the stigma of being merely local poets, as most of us assuredly are, maybe let’s celebrate that instead. Homer wasn’t Homer at first, after all, just your hometown bard singing hometown songs.
©2016 David Graham
Editor's Note: If you would like to write to David about this article, his email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org