Message in a Bottle
National Poetry Month Special: Does Anybody Read Poetry?

While searching for a suitable quote to put on our blackboard I came upon this comment by the poet C.D. Wright:

Nobody reads poetry, we are told at every inopportune moment.
I read poetry. I am somebody. I am the people, too.

Sadly, the use of the pronoun “we” implies that only poets read poetry. That poets toil in a vacuum bag inhabited by the dust of poets past and exist only to be emptied into the receptacle of poets present and future.

I looked further to find the context for her remark. I assumed it was from an interview but it was actually contained in a book of essays called Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil. It’s an interesting title choice for a book about the state of American poetry, first because it invokes a term of law that relates to murder (if enough cooling time elapses between the provocation and the killing then the charge may be homicide instead of manslaughter) and second because it suggests through the use of the term “vigil” that American poetry is the victim or is at least on its deathbed.

Here’s the quote in its entirety:

Nobody reads poetry, we are told at every inopportune moment. I read poetry. I am somebody. I am the people, too. It can be allowed that an industrious quantity of contemporary American poetry is consciously written for a hermetic constituency; the bulk is written for the bourgeoisie, leaving a lean cut for labor. Only the hermetically aimed has a snowball’s chance in hell of reaching its intended ears. One proceeds from this realization. A staggering figure of vibrant, intelligent people can and do live without poetry, especially without the poetry of their time. This figure includes the unemployed, the rank and file, the union brass, banker, scientist, lawyer, doctor, architect, pilot, and priest. It also includes most academics, most of the faculty of the humanities, most allegedly literary editors and most allegedly literary critics. They do so—go forward in their lives, toward their great reward, in an engulfing absence of poetry—without being perceived or perceiving themselves as hobbled or deficient in any significant way. It is nearly true, though I am often reminded of a Tranströmer broadside I saw in a crummy office building in San Francisco:

We got dressed and showed the house
You live well the visitor said
The slum must be inside you.

If I wanted to understand a culture, my own for instance, and if I thought such an understanding were the basis for a lifelong inquiry, I would turn to poetry first. For it is my confirmed bias that the poets remain the most ‘stunned by existence,’ the most determined to redeem the world in words…

So there it is. The idea is not that nobody reads poetry but that a whole lot of people don’t. That a broad swath of the population is “hobbled by an engulfing absence of poetry” without even realizing it—is suffering from a life-threatening “deficiency” of something it has but a mild passing awareness of. That the engulfing absence of poetry could be as silent a killer (metaphorically speaking) as heart disease among women. It’s not poetry that’s the victim—it’s the poetry-less. It’s just the sort of sweeping radical hyperbole that I’m attracted to, but more than that it’s a cultural diagnosis and a call for a cure. If it sounds like a quack diagnosis by a literary charlatan trying to pass poetry off as a miracle potion, the respected physician (and poet) William Carlos Williams made a similar and more dire pronouncement when he wrote:

It is difficult

to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there

Whether or not declaring a “National Poetry Month” comes anywhere near to addressing (dare I call it) Poetry Deficit Disorder or anywhere close to redressing the hobbled and culturally deficient “slum” we may or may not inhabit is up for debate. Detractors, many of them poets, claim that proclaiming a National Poetry Month perpetuates the perceived irrelevance of poetry by stamping its foot and insisting on its relevance and that publishers and institutions use the month to spotlight and traffic in mainstream poetry—to promote and push “accessible” poetry while effectively burying “inaccessible” poetry.

I can sort of see their point but after all is said and done I like the idea of National Poetry Month. The cure for poetrylessness may begin with the awareness of poetry but it might also require an exposure to a less threatening strain—like a vaccine. Do you suppose there are any ribbon colors that are not yet spoken for?

—Cindy

Don’t forget that in celebration of National Poetry Month, we’re running a poetry contest open to all ages. The contest ends April 30th, so enter soon.

New Nobel Laureate

The latest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced yesterday in Stockholm, and poet Tomas Tranströmer is the lucky fella (it’s almost always a fella, as only 12 of the 108 prize-takers have been women). Hey, you’re saying, isn’t he Swedish? The fix was in! Well, it has been almost forty years since the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel to one of their own, so I guess you could say they were due. The best way to see if they were right would be to read his poetry, of course, and the best book to pick imageis probably The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems. As is inevitable in these cases, copies of his work have immediately disappeared from bookstore shelves and warehouses, so it’ll be a little while before this one comes back into stock. In the meanwhile, we at least have news accounts to suggest he’s an interesting figure. According to the Guardian, “[h]e suffered a stroke in 1990 which affected his ability to talk, but has continued to write …  At a recent appearance in London, his words were read by others, while the poet, who is a keen amateur musician, contributed by playing pieces specially composed for him to play on the piano with only his left hand.”

I make a prediction every year about who I think is going to get the award, but I haven’t been right yet. One thing that makes the winners so hard to predict is that there are so many credible nominees. Even restricting the options to writers from the US, we have Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy, all of whom have had their names bandied about as serious candidates. I’m not sure it’s possible to bandy anything seriously, but you know what I mean. North of the border there’s a pair of big-leaguers, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, and we haven’t begun to touch on the many dozens of authors outside North America who usually form the group from which the winners get tapped. A whole world of authors exists who deserve attention, and at the rate of one Nobel laureate a year, there isn’t time to give them all proper credit.

I’ve been trying to drop hints to the Swedish Academy for a long time about who should get that credit next, but so far they haven’t been listening. If you know anyone in Scandinavia, pass this link along—it couldn’t hurt.

imageMy first dark horse in the race is Ismail Kadare from Albania. Much of his work was produced while that country was controlled by the Communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, so his novels are often set in the distant past. As such, they discuss various forms of political oppression in the only way they can, allegorically rather than directly. The Three-Arched Bridge is set in the 14th century on the eve of an Ottoman invasion, The Pyramid describes the vast (and unnecessary) construction project launched by the Pharaoh Cheops, The Palace of Dreams takes place in a surreal 19th-century bureaucracy where even sleep is no refuge from the watchful eye of the government, and so on. The restrictions under which Kadare labored served to deepen his writing, forcing him to make his books function on at least two levels. As historical fiction, they’re vibrant and realistic pictures of fascinating times and places, and as covert commentary, they resonate even more powerfully. Born in 1936 with nearly fifty novels behind him, he’s exactly the kind of late-career author the Nobel usually honors. 

imageSomeone in the running who may need to get a few more miles under his belt is Javier Marías (b. 1951). He spent a substantial amount of time in the US growing up and has translated many American writers into Spanish, but has also found the time to write
fourteen novels of his own. He started early, publishing his first book before he was twenty, and is now smack-dab in his prime, probably the most respected literary name in Spain. One of his most characteristic and accessible novels is Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, about a man who embarks on an affair with a married woman only to have her die in his arms on their first night together. He spends the rest of book trying to balance his feelings of responsibility against a desire to keep from being exposed, with sometimes comic and sometimes intense results. Marías recently completed what may be his most significant work, the three-part novel Your Face Tomorrow. There’s an enormous amount that goes on between its covers, but imagining James Bond if Proust had created him will give you the idea. In the barest description of the plot, the narrator, a Spaniard living in England, is recruited into a hyper-secret intelligence organization, falls for a colleague, and eventually finds himself in over his head, but that hardly does the book justice. Threads go back to British military snafus in World War II and betrayals during the Spanish Civil War; the meanings of words shift as they’re translated fromimage language to language; the psychology of marriage and estrangement is examined; and the philosophy of violence is investigated from all angles. It’s kind of an exploded diagram of a spy novel where every action actually has a thought behind it, part of an entire stream of consciousness. You won’t tear through it in a weekend, but if you have a season to spend with it, you’ll be well rewarded. 

These two aren’t the only worthies who may someday wear the crown (note to self: check to see if there’s an actual laurel wreath involved) but I’ll save them for another day. Remember, if you hear either of these author names pronounced on the radio in a Swedish accent in years to come, you heard them here first.

James

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