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.23 - April 2018
Poetry Aloud, Part 4:
“Daddy, When Are You Going to Worcester Again?”
My first job after college was at a self-serve gas station in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was minimum wage, but on my first day I was promoted to manager. Who says a liberal arts degree in English is useless? On my second day, it hit me that the extra twenty-five cents per hour came at a price. I had to hire and fire a staff, and fill in when one of them didn’t show up for a shift. I had to open the station every morning before the sun rose, measure and record gas levels in the underground tanks, balance the books and account for any shortfall from the day previous, all while working my own shift. My one solace was that the station wasn’t busy at all until well after sunrise. I got in the habit of bringing a book to read between customers, and often was able to scribble poem drafts in my journal as the sun rose. During my time at Grafton Street Citgo I got a surprising amount of reading and writing done.
One day I was reading Robert Bly when the second shift arrived, who was a funny, cheerful young woman named Nancy. “Oooh, Robert Bly!” she exclaimed. “He’s my favorite poet!” I confess I was a little surprised. In 1975 Bly wasn’t nearly as famous as he later became, and he wasn’t even on the curriculum at the fine liberal arts college I had just come from. I’d discovered him on my own. As far as I know, Nancy wasn’t planning to go to college. When I asked her how she knew of Bly, she told me she had heard him read many times. “I go to all his readings,” she said happily.
Thus I learned that Bly came to Worcester with some frequency. Those were the heady, pre-Reaganomics years of thriving arts agencies at both the state and national levels. Money even flowed generously in support of poetry. The Poets in the Schools movement was in its heyday, and Worcester had many schools. When I first heard Bly give a reading, shortly afterward, he told the audience that whenever money got tight at his house, his kids would start asking, “Daddy, when are you going to Worcester again?” Much of the family income came from his reading tours.
And, as it turned out, Nancy had never cracked one of his books, never read a word of Bly on the page. She just loved his performances. So did I, once I got to hear him. And sure enough, I had more than a few chances in my two years in Worcester. Bly in those days was flamboyant, to say the least. He was the Grateful Dead of poetry readers. His readings ran long, sometimes two hours, mostly performed from memory, and with a large degree of improvisation. He recited as many poems by others as by himself. He danced about, twirling his ever-present Mexican serape. He wore masks to dramatize some poems. I saw him charge into the audience while shouting a poem as if in accusation. He sometimes strummed (quite badly) a dulcimer, and sang loudly in a minimally tuneful voice. That was the first time I ever heard Blake’s “Songs” actually presented as songs, in fact—which was a real revelation to a young poet schooled almost entirely in analyzing poems on the page.
In short, Bly in his prime was something to see. He could be corny and bombastic and judgmental and poignant and sloppy and very funny by turns. I know some detested his over-the-top theatrics. Many academic critics, then and now, have disdained him. But having recently come from a world where poetry readers politely mumbled their poems, sipped tea, and expressed everything with elegantly muted irony, I loved his in-your-face style. No one dozed off during one of his performances. And, to be honest, he was not at all a mere vapid showboater. He read great poems, by the likes of Whitman, Neruda, Vallejo, Dickinson, Frost, Rilke, Lawrence, Williams, Eliot, Ignatow, Levertov, and a lot more. Both in his readings and his publications he introduced me to poems and poets I’d not heard of, including many from other tongues, including Antonio Machado, Georg Trakl, Kabir, Mirabai, Tomas Transtromer, and Rolf Jacobsen. He made me love them. His sheer enthusiasm was contagious and powerful.
He was theatrical but not professionally so, which was part of his appeal to me in my early, rebellious years as a young poet. His diction was blurry, his voice kind of whiny, and he had some sort of mild lisp. He didn’t always enunciate well. If he forgot the words of a poem he was reciting, he just faked it. (I learned this one night when he presented some poems by William Carlos Williams that I knew well, mangling the exact phrasing of every one.) Though he was intimidatingly well-read, he was, in fact, the opposite of an “academic” poet, making extravagant claims and sweeping judgments all the time, seldom arguing a point when he could just repeat it louder. He was, in addition to being a memorable performer, a useful person for a fledgling poet to argue with in his mind. Above all, he was a living argument in favor of poetry as more than a cerebral exercise. He emphasized emotion, myth, mystery, dream, and sensuous pleasure. He insisted on not forgetting poetry’s ancient links with music and the other arts.
Later I had to put some distance between myself and Bly, he was such an overwhelming personality. Soon enough I came to see his flaws pretty clearly, for indeed all poets have flaws. Yet even as did I always was grateful to him for shaking up the literary world in some very needful ways. Moreover, Bly wasn’t the only poet stopping by Worcester in those years. Those were heady days indeed; in addition to becoming a fan of Bly’s readings, I learned a great deal from hearing poets as different as Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Denise Levertov, Etheridge Knight, Jay Wright, Ai, Russell Edson, Joseph Langland, Marge Piercy, Michael Harper, and Maxine Kumin—all of whom came through town, some more than once. (Here I should at least raise a toast to the unforgettable Fran Quinn, poet and poetry entrepreneur, who hosted many of those readings and became a good friend and mentor to me in those early years.)
I’ll conclude this month with W. S. Merwin, another early favorite I first heard read during my Worcester days. He was impressive in a completely different way from Bly. He also provides me with a further example of a key point I made last month about Richard Hugo, namely that a poetry reading is a social occasion. Or, to put it more grandly, it is part of the oral tradition from which all poetry has flowed since the dawn of language. The audience, in other words, is just as significant as the writer, as are the circumstances of the reading itself.
Of course, no one would accuse Merwin of being a flashy performer, then or now, but as it happens my first experience of him in person was remarkably intimate. He was booked by the local community college for a reading, and through some glitch that I’ve forgotten the details of, there was almost no audience. Even as far back as the mid-1970s this turnout must have been unusual. Merwin’s reputation was gold-plated. He had been a Yale Younger Poet at age 24, and his distinguished career was already more than a quarter century old. His many honors by then included the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and poetry editorship of The Nation. He was in every anthology.
But there we were, the President of the school’s Poetry Club, his girlfriend, the great man himself plus a friend traveling with him, and a small handful of others, including me. We were in a cinderblock classroom, the blackboard half-erased from the previous class, fluorescent lights buzzing. There couldn’t have been more than 8 or 10 of us. Merwin was most gracious about it. We arranged desks in a small circle, and he began chatting and sharing poems. As I recall, he read quite a few by other poets, in his own impeccable translations. He answered questions, took requests, and all in all was a very approachable, fascinating poet. He read slowly and beautifully, his soft but intense voice bringing out all the nuances of the poems’ rhythms. All in all, it was a beautiful occasion, and I was very grateful to have been there.
From there, of course, his reputation and achievement just continued growing. The last time I caught one of his readings was at a writers’ conference sometime in the present century, I forget where and when. This reading was held in one of those immense hotel ballrooms that seats many hundreds, and there weren’t many empty seats. I got there a bit late, and was seated so far from the podium that Merwin was just a tiny head I could barely see over the sea of bodies. I believe he read just as skillfully, but somewhat to my surprise, I was soon bored and drifting off.
He had not substantially changed his performance style, but it was, I realized, simply the wrong way to hear a poet of such subtlety and understated rhetoric. All the intimacy I had relished thirty years and more previously was gone. It was sort of like hearing Segovia play classical guitar etudes in a massive football stadium. Merwin’s voice was miked well enough and he read with conviction, but ultimately it simply wasn’t a good match of reader and venue. I think that in fact some poetry may well be better experienced on the page, or, if performed publicly, in a much smaller auditorium. I’m not a big fan of Jumbotron screens at poetry readings, but that’s the only thing I can think of that might have helped me from drifting into snoozeland. I later heard Ted Kooser at a similar conference, reading in front of a big video screen featuring his face, and it actually helped quite a bit. Like Merwin, he’s another understated reader, and his poems are quite reserved in style.
I’d say there’s good reason so many slam poets perform loudly and rapidly. When you’re reading in a noisy bar or cafe, or in a big auditorium, your first job is to grab the attention of your audience. And after a while, if you go to a lot of slams as a listener, you start to expect such a style, and are disappointed if you don’t get it. This doesn’t mean Merwin or Kooser are lesser poets than, say, Taylor Mali or Patricia Smith (in their slam days). Nor does it mean, I hasten to add, that they are better because they are “page poets.” But it does mean, I believe, that as readers we all need to think long and hard about audience expectations and needs if we agree to perform our work in public.
© 2018 David Graham