I’ll tell you, and I am being as honest as I can be here: I do not know the first thing about poetry. I know that haiku has three lines, 5-7-5 syllables (see, I don’t even know the jargon to describe that properly, and I’m not stopping to look it up so I sound smarter than I am on this topic). I know the rhythm of a limerick. I know the phrase iambic pentameter but worry that perhaps my accent will make me read it in a way that I fail to recognize the meter. I never took a poetry class, was never introduced to poets, don’t know who the ‘good’ poets are (and correspondingly, who the embarrassing poets are). I only just know what I like, and that’s the truth. I know when I don’t like something, and I know when a poem moves something in me. In fact, I’ve read poems where I can tell you what and how it made me feel, but not exactly what it meant.
I know the names of famous poets but couldn’t tell you one thing they wrote. I’ve never memorized poems, though occasional snips may get stuck in my head, a tiny phrase here and there.
And I organize a monthly poetry group in my house where 7 to 9 people sit around my living room and read stunning poetry aloud — most often, poetry they have written, but certainly not always. One member has an astonishing breadth of knowledge and will just start reciting long poems when we’re discussing something, and a relevant poem comes to his mind. He is amazing. One member writes the most jaw-dropping poetry, I can only sit with my mouth open and experience awe. When I went to Marfa, his poetry came into my head in that landscape because it had soaked into my bones. One member writes extraordinarily precise poems and she has only just started writing poems. One member brings fantastic work by new and beloved poets and always has something so smart to say about them.
Last night we met and most of the poems were magnificent, including this great one:
Diatribe Against the Dead (by Angel Gonzales, trans. Dominique Scopa)
The dead are selfish: they make us cry and do not care,
Stay quiet in the most inconvenient places,
Refuse to walk—we have to carry them
Piggyback to the grave
As if they were children — what a burden.
Unusually rigid, their faces
Accuse us of something, or warn us;
They are the bad conscience, the bad example,
The worst things in our lives always, always.
The bad thing about the dead
Is that there is no way to kill them.
Their constant destructive labor
Is for that reason, incalculable.
Insensitive, distant, stubborn, cold,
With their insolence and silence
They do not realize what they undo.
YOWZA. We spent some time trying to figure out the last two lines, and we talked a lot about the truth of it, and the perfect use of humor for such a grave (pun intended) subject. As usual, the poem reminded one member of other poems which he recited and they were perfect fits for the points we were discussing.
And then he said this: “I realized I don’t know what it means to read.” At first we laughed, but lightly because while he is very funny and charming, he’s also very smart and it’s safest to assume he’s going to have a great point. So he talked about reading a difficult poem and he couldn’t understand it the first time he read it. Had he read it? Could he say he’d read the poem? Is reading more than having your eyes pass over the letters and realizing that you know the meanings of [most of] the words? Is understanding required to say you’ve read something — but what level of ‘understanding’ is required? Because as he reminded us, T.S. Eliot said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it’s understood.”
Here’s the poem he brought that made him wonder about the meaning of ‘reading.’
At Melville’s Tomb (Hart Crane)
Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.
And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.
Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars. (several of us gasped aloud)
Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides … High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.
So the one who writes the jaw-dropping poetry knows a lot about Hart Crane and tells us about his life, his family, his death. “What is ‘monody,’?” I ask — and the man who brought the poem knew, because he had looked it up. (It means a song of lamentation for someone’s death.)
THESE ARE MY PEOPLE. These members of my poetry group, all of whom know 1,500 things to every one I happen to know, these people are my people. And they love coming, too; one member had a terribly inflamed nerve (sciatica maybe?) and could barely walk, but he limped in and said he couldn’t possibly miss it.
I say all this because if you enjoy poetry (or whatever), and wish you had a community, you can make one. You don’t have to be an expert! I started this group on Meetup because I hoped to find 6 or 7 people in Austin who just enjoyed poetry as I do, so we could meet and talk about it. I’m out of the Meetup system now, and we just have this beautiful little group of people who relish the chance every month to sit in uncomfortable chairs for two solid hours and read and talk about poetry. It was hard at first, and if I’m honest it’s still hard every month when I’m waiting for them to arrive; I always think this time I won’t pull it off, my ignorance will be too big a burden, the group won’t cohere….but it always does work, every single time. I’m so very grateful for these lovely, warm, generous people. I’m the luckiest person I know.