It Sang Itself Utterly Away: the Presence of the Poet

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Lately, I’ve been obsessed with memory. Maybe I shouldn’t say lately, because I’ve always been obsessed with memory—mostly my own memories. One second I am brushing my teeth and the next second I am shaking my head and groaning, “Oh, no.” My husband calls from the couch, “What’s wrong?” and I say through a mouthful of toothpaste, “I just remembered every single embarrassing thing I’ve ever done.”

This is an exaggeration. I only remember some fraction of them, brushing my teeth at the sink. The rest wait until I am driving home from class, or doing groceries, or pouring water from the jug in the fridge. Lately, though, I have been especially obsessed with memory in my writing, as it relates to writing, so I find myself in a strange situation wherein all of my poems somehow seem to prominently feature me. Perhaps this is not unusual but I worry that my presence in my own poems is suffocating the reader, that the immediacy and intimacy I feel with my own memories translates to tedium on the page.

Of course, immediacy and intimacy are often hallmarks of poetry. Haiku, for example. Now that is a palpably immediate form. This makes sense, given the history of haiku and the context in which many of them were written: collaborative leisure activity among Japanese aristocrats, penning and passing, penning and passing, then casual creative game for merchants and farmers, then Bashō with his travel pack, coming down the mountain from Ryushaku-ji, stopping at the foot of a “rocky steep” to quickly write:

            Stillness—
the cicada’s cry
drills into the rocks.

or

            A cicada shell;
it sang itself
utterly away.

The whole form is predicated on immediacy, whether the poet is attending and responding, Whose Line Is It Anyway?–style, to the just-now-written lines of the person sitting to his left, or to a cicada echoing against the rocky side of a mountain. The poet cannot help but be as present in the poem as he is in the moment that inspires the poem.

This certainly encourages me. But what do I do with Bashō’s lesson on immediacy: “Composition must occur in an instant, like a woodcutter felling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping at his enemy.” I’m not sure this is exactly how my mind works, Bashō. I’m more like the kid picking bark from the huge tree, chunk by chunk, because the wood underneath is so smooth, and I am like the park ranger asking the kid to please stop because she’s harming the tree, and I am also the tree. For months I have been trying to write a canzone—the perfect form for someone like me, I thought, so often locked in that obsessive-repetitive state: that thing I mumbled in a meeting, that look on a stranger’s face, that time in second grade when I yawned and the boy across the room was looking at me. Many of these attempts—decidedly not canzones, in the end—are still curious as to how exactly they are going to wrap up. They just seem to go on and on and on. So, in the end, I probably have a lot to learn from haiku and their ethos of immediacy.

Of course, process is not the only way, or the best way, to achieve immediacy. The kigo, it seems to me, is an interesting artifact of immediacy. It is, as Robert Hass remarks in the forward of The Essential Haiku, an expression of the Japanese sense of time, connecting the poet and the reader to the natural cycle of the seasons. Connecting, by extension, the poet to the reader. But that’s not all of what I find interesting about the kigo. Reading these haiku, I may not always recognize which word or phrase is the requisite seasonal reference—or even if I can guess, how am I supposed to know in which season rice-planting occurs?—but we know that Bashō’s contemporaries would have known exactly what it all meant. These references were a shared knowledge among poets and readers, the accumulation of “resonances and associations from earlier poetry as well as from the Japanese way of thinking about things,” Hass says; the references were “conventional and widely available.”

So, perhaps kigo are not remarkable simply because they gesture towards season, but rather because they are shared cultural knowledge. Sure, kigo contain seasonal references, but they are powerful as a poetic device only because they contain widely recognized, collective expressions of culture. Soap bubbles? Must be spring. Searching for plum blossoms? Late winter, obviously. For a useful analogue, I like to consider the meme. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the word meme to refer to what he called a “unit of cultural transmission.” Memes carry cultural ideas or symbols, typically in a compressed (written, verbal, gestural, pictoral) form, and are usually highly contextual. Sounds familiar, I think. Zooming ahead from Edo Japan to contemporary haiku, I find Joshua Beckman’s collection Your Time Has Come. If a kigo is simply a compressed expression of shared cultural knowledge, maybe I can eke out one or two from the following haiku:

Over Kill Van Kull
Jersey stacks smoke
All night long.

*

Jonesing all day
and kids on the boat
playing with a dime bag.

*

If a tree falls
in the woods etc.
and so too with friends.

Coded in these haiku are the relationship between New York City and New Jersey (or, specifically, the relationship between young urbanites of New York and the idea of Jersey); Staten Island as the odd man out among the boroughs (that weird accent, the attitude, the ferry); drug slang like “jonesing” and “dime bag” that evokes the “resonances and associations” of cultural exchange and appropriation (that’s a sound analysis, yes?); and, of course, a shared knowledge of that thought experiment (the tree, the forest, absence, silence). As seasonal references are deeply coded in the older Japanese haiku, these bits of slang and cultural soundbytes indicate the American milieu, connecting poet and reader to the culture and ultimately to each other.

Beckman is necessarily and profoundly present in these poems, as Bashō was in his. Is this presence a requisite of poetry, I wonder? Or is it only true of other imagistic poems that are firmly rooted in place? I am thinking now of Robert Bly’s strange object poems. Bly certainly seems to be a marked presence in these poems. And I’m not just referring here to his use of the first person in most of these poems, although this is a prominent feature of these pieces—take “The Starfish” as an example: “I have climbed down the cliffs,” “I notice a purple starfish,” “I cannot see,” “I reach into it,” “I take an arm” and on and on. But this is just a matter of content—the piece feels anecdotal, although not warm, and we know we are in Bly’s experience because he tells us expressly I do this and I do that. No, no, I’m talking here about form. What about form? I’m particularly interested in Bly’s abundant use of ellipses, the vacant pauses that seem to serve no real syntactical purpose, since the integrity of his sentences is intact with or without them. Instead, his use of ellipses points to pacing, like he is searching for the next thought, a kind of meta-syntax that shows the machine working. It is as though he wants us to be particularly aware of a mind behind this moment, a mind that pauses and considers even as it recounts the moment on the page. The poet, then, is not just a physical, or anecdotal, presence in the poem, but an intellectual presence.

Of course, how much of an “intellectual presence” do we really want to be in our own poems? Isn’t this the problem I’m facing with my failed canzones—too much thinking? They run the risk of reading as a bit overdone, I think, as a little too self-ware and, oh dear… I’m just now seeing that in the margin of this Bly interview I’ve written “What a prick.” Ah, okay. Yes. It was section where he actually talks about the “The Starfish.” Let’s all revel in this for just a moment:

One arm is rolled back a little “like a puppy on its back.” I remember writing that and thinking, “Whoa, that’s wonderful.” A scientist will say, “Some of its arms are in a rolled up position.” Period. They eye has done that. But I added “lazily,” and all of a sudden […]”

And all of a sudden, Robert, I’m rolling my eyes and retching and saying to no one in particular, “Can you believe this guy?!” But there I go again, closing myself to risk and therefore possibility. What it is about delight that I find so uncomfortable? Is my reaction to Bly symptomatic of the same social illness that caused the literary world to scoff when much maligned tween romance actress Kristen Stewart told an interviewer that she is in awe of her own poetry? She said: “I don’t want to sound so fucking utterly pretentious … but after I write something, I go, ‘Holy fuck, that’s crazy.’” The contempt Kristen received for that gem was immediate and overwhelming. But does that sound right? Are we so averse to delight that we abjure finding it even in the safe harbor of ourselves?

After the initial backlash of literati cynics came an equally fervent backlash of those who felt the world had been too hard on Kristen. As one Facebook friend put it: “I would like to live in a world where more people write poetry, kthnx.” (Obviously I’ve paraphrased here, because even I, excessive stickler that I am, would definitely not spend 18 minutes searching through posts Facebook, from April 2015 to December 2013, only to find that this post was somehow deleted, and then another 4 minutes skimming just in case it wasn’t deleted and I missed it the first time.) Anyway, I agree. More poetry all around.

But I think maybe he was also missing the issue of Kristen’s utter, bewildered delight in her own ability to create something. There’s something important there, just as there is in Bly’s proclamation. It is indicative, I think, of an openness to possibility that is essential to poetry. As Bly says in the same interview, “Writing, one has to be playful enough to say, ‘I’ll probably make a fool of myself in this image.’” Why shouldn’t that cause delight? Why shouldn’t we believe in the beauty of what we’re doing? (I take that phrase, by the way, from an interview my mother once clipped from a newspaper and taped to my bedroom door. She used to leave clippings like this—little news stories, a colorful infographic on how various medications interact with grapefruit and milk, or a fashion profile on men in skirts titled “Manly Men, Without Pants”—by my placemat at the dinner table, but they would inevitably get mixed up with the rest of the odd paper and magazine assortment by the table and be transferred to the garbage can. Then she took to leaving them on the stairs that led from my bedroom door up to my loft bedroom. But, being a teenager, I dumped the rest of my things there: homework, laundry, and once, strangely, a broken ceramic bowl. So then, to ensure I would read and fully appreciate these clippings, she started taping to my bedroom door, directly at eye level, so I would not to miss them in the muss of our everyday lives. This particular clipping, as I mentioned, was an interview with an actress in a new musical about Florence Foster Jenkins, an amateur opera singer so god-awful she earned herself a cult following that persists to this day. The actress’ final piece of advice to those wanting to sing intolerably poorly—but do it well—was to “Believe in the beauty of what you’re doing.”) This is hard for me. At what point, can someone tell me, am I supposed to make the transition from being ruthless in sizing up my own work to saying, “Holy fuck, that’s crazy”? Without the former, everything I write will be shit; without the latter, I’ll be shut up in my apartment surrounded by papers and Swedish caramel wrappers, whimpering from dawn until dusk.

I may have gotten a bit off track. The question is… well, we don’t really know, do we. But I was talking about the presence of the poet in the poem.

Bly, of course, is a conspicuous presence in his prose poems, but Robert Hass—many of Hass’s prose poems are about strangers, vignettes that occur outside of Hass and with Hass nowhere in sight. I’m drawn in particular to “A Story About the Body” and “Novella,” partially because of the way they deal with women’s bodies as space, or memory, and issues of desire and entitlement therein, but also because of the way they blur the line between mystery and straightforwardness.

“A Story About the Body” reads like just that—beginning, middle, and… end? That blue bowl, the bees, metaphor, symbol, the lyric impulse. Here’s where we leave narrative and enter the figurative, a turn in Hass’ mind. Now what do I do with that, I wonder? “Novella” is similar in that it is largely narrative and ends with an image—olfactory in this case, which is important—but it tells the story in a more self-aware manner. At first, Hass leverages the inherent immediacy of present tense—and then suddenly: “From time to time she remembers this interval in the fall and winter of ninth grade. By spring the painter had moved. By summer her period had started. And after that her memory blurred, speeding up.” We deal with the woman’s past in present tense, and with her present in past tense. By the end of the poem we realize that we were never really there with the woman as a thirteen-year-old girl, it was never happening in “real time”—it was all memory (and we know how tightly memory is woven with smell, see?) as she sat on the beach watching her friends.

Is it, despite what Bashō would have us believe, that the most immediacy we can ever get is only through whatever grabs hold in our minds, and not what we experience with our five senses? I recall a guest reader in my undergrad years discussing his poems, telling us, “The important images are what last.” At any given moment we filter through everything we see, hear, feel, smell, primed as we are to take in only that which experience tells us is necessary. Once those moments make their way into our deeper minds, is it any wonder that the only bits we recall for the long haul are the ones we attend to, over and over, like worry stones rubbed smooth? Hass may not feature as a physical presence in these poems, but he is certainly making us feel his intellect and, in the process, drawing our attention to the mystery of memory and how we think about memory. This seems to be the particular stone that has lodged in my mind: think more on the page. Show my intellect more, because—and I don’t want to sound so fucking utterly pretentious but—it’s got to be there somewhere.

It seems to me I’ve avoided this in my work. I don’t know why. Maybe because it is easier to avoid all those ragged, neurotic thoughts in a poem than in real life, where I’m constantly losing to that part of my brain which, months after an acquaintance has said something whose subtextual implications I didn’t quite understand, will make me turn to that person and say, “When you mentioned x a few months ago, did you mean y?” And that person will say, “Huh?” and I will then wonder if I ought to have let it go (the answer is always yes) or if I should seek further clarification (please stop, you are harming the tree). But now we are talking about two different kinds of thinking: thinking about myself, and thinking about thinking (…about myself—damn!). But don’t all young poets write about themselves at first? Perhaps the models I’ve considered here will convince me that it’s all okay, that my presence in my own poetry can be an asset so long as I’ve put myself there not just in fact, but in thought as well.

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About Ellene Glenn Moore

Ellene Glenn Moore earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University, where she held a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Fellowship in Poetry. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Salamander, Best New Poets, Raleigh Review, Chautauqua, Caliban, Ninth Letter, Brevity, and Print Oriented Bastards.