Paterson

Rewatched Paterson (2016) the other night. Still can’t think of another movie that does accurate justice to anything like what it’s like to be a poet. My favorite quote by Bashō bears repeating, always:

“In this mortal frame of mind, which is made of a hundred bones and nine orifices, there is something, and this something can be called, for lack of a better name, a windswept soul, for it is much like thin drapery that is torn and swept away by the slightest stirring of the wind. This something in me took to writing poetry years ago, merely to amuse itself at first, but finally making it its lifelong business. It must be admitted, however, that there were times it was almost ready to drop its pursuit, or again times when it was so puffed up with pride that it exulted in vain victories over others. Indeed, ever since it began to write poetry, it has never found peace with itself, always waving between doubts of one kind or another. At one time it wanted to gain security by entering the service of the court, or at another it wished to measure the depth of its ignorance by trying to become a scholar, but it was prevented from either by the unquenchable love of poetry. The fact is, it knows no other art than the art of writing poetry, and therefore it hangs onto it more or less blindly.”

Paterson is about a poet bus driver and the “secret notebook” in which he pens his poems. Adam Driver’s name is Paterson in the movie and like Bashō he has “taken to writing poetry,” implying a beginning, a fledgling poet. Like many newborn poets, he is infatuated with one of the old giants of the tradition: in this case, predictably, William Carlos Williams. Whose preoccupation with the everyday Paterson emulates. His poem comparing different brands of matches exemplifies this down-to-earth approach in the starkly “honest,” or plain, style of poets like Jack Gilbert. It’s astonishingly direct in a dreamy, Romantic sort of way. The poet, and his life, deeply intertwined. This blur of person and poem we find in poets like Frank O’Hara, whose name comes up in the movie.

Years ago I would have described this as “authenticity.” Alas for the dead god of the authentic. Even as far back as 2009 at Calvin I had Klatt saying artifice, it’s all artifice, and my first great love affair with a contemporary poet, Franz Wright, ended when I found out just how many drafts he had to tweak to create that slapdash spontaneity his poems are famous for.

I recently wrote a book in the Paterson mode. Well, I composed it on my iPhone reading my way through Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Suzuki Roshi. The result was probably too personal to publish, though I have been mining poems for imagery. Too personal turns out to be a thing with respect to those that are near and dear, their secret lives, the way in which you are yourself inextricably culpable.

The movie reminds me of an innocence that precedes much exposure to the work of other poets. 2010-2011 I lived and taught in Yantai with my father. I proceeded in a procedural way through the following poem: A) “There is a chair beneath the cherry tree,” B)

“Velvet red
upholstery peeling
off the yellow foam,”

C) “There are no cherries left, and no one in the chair.” D) “Two emptinesses, therefore, … (This part varies, draft by draft), E) “I would sit but, look, the seat is wet with August rain.” Like the poems in Paterson, this one of mine is minimalist and very commonsense, this is, logical. It has this inexorable logic that pulls you through the poem and there’s something very comforting about these baby steps. My own, though, lie far behind. And I want to forget. I want to get back to my notebook and the good things about today.

Feel I’ve fallen into the gulf between myself and my work.

The Sound of Metal

Last night finished The Sound of Metal on Amazon Prime and it’s been resonating more and more deeply on hindsight today: Story of a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing, joins a deaf community against his will, and rejects his deafness by way of surgical implants.

When separated from the rest of the world as a member of the deaf community (with its vowed silence and monastic overtones), Ruben learns to sign. His sponsor Joe requires only that he learn how to be deaf by sitting each morning with a pot of coffee and writing in a notebook, a practice not unlike my own.

Despite becoming an integral member of the commune(ity), Ruben’s desire to pick up where he left off with his band leads him to the operating room for implants that bypass the ear canals and stimulate the brain producing a metallic imitation of sound. This disappointing replica lends the movie’s title its second meaning: We go from heavy metal to the scratches of neuronal frequencies that fall short of and fail to do justice to the whole throbbing beauty of natural hearing.

The crux of the movie is the following, Joe’s reaction to Ruben’s choice: “I wonder, uh, all these mornings you’ve been sitting in my study, sitting, have you had any moments of stillness? Because you’re right, Ruben. The world does keep moving, and it can be a damn cruel place. But for me, those moments of stillness, that place, that’s the kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you.”

Hard to imagine a more eloquent description of what I have enjoyed in poetry than that. Rae Armantrout’s complaint that “the nonnarrative, declarative sentences of many language-oriented prose poems leave little room for the experience of silence” (Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, p. 429). Creeley’s idea of poetry as “that place we are finally safe in” where “understanding is not a requirement,” too, speaks to stillness as the great bounty of poems: a kingdom protected from that “damn cruel place” where we enact ourselves, a kind of sanctuary.

In the last scene, Ruben removes the staticky hearing apparatus and in total silence turns to his surroundings: A silent steeple, skateboarders, gleam of sun in the treetop among contrails. With him, we enter a stillness, Roethke’s “imperishable quiet at the heart of form,” as if subject matter had melted wholly away. And the credits roll for a moment in that imperishable quiet. What a movie.

Two Cruelties

My friend Alexey repeated for me once the idea that art used to be an escape from the horror of life but now it is an escape from the boredom of life. This morning I composed a particularly bothered poem about what yesterday turned out to be a very hard day: Visiting an obese podiatrist in the rain (I forgot my wallet twice, containing ID, insurance card), driving to Lowe’s in the rain on Lili’s behalf with a list of quarrelsome questions for an elusive underling in a face mask who wouldn’t answer the phone to save a life, and a reading on Zoom to the musical score of Omi screaming in the bedroom.

In contrast to art as an escape, the escapism of popular fiction, say, I have inherited the notion of literature as mimesis, a representation of the real, and therefore a confrontation with reality rather than an escape from it. That said, I can acknowledge that this notion may be a privileged one, which may even derive from the boredom, or excess of energies, Alexey was talking about. So, bring on the horror, I guess, because art is no longer an escape from it.

Yes, all good, and yet reality is multiplicitous. Our choice of subject matter is formative. Is there an ethics at play here alongside the aesthetics? We choose the particular reality we want to re-present and abide in (or by?) for a time with our readers. I always think of Mary Oliver’s statement in “Singapore” about this very problem: “A poem should always have birds in it.” Very decisive. And Donald Revell’s idea of paradise. Birds of paradise, our poems, The Good and The Beautiful. Are they an escape from horror? Boredom?

After yesterday with its disheartening paroxysms of rain, Independence Missouri has brightened and all the water that fell is rising is fragrancing the air. A part of me would love nothing better than to relish this weather outside on the back deck with my notebook ecstatically ablaze but hey, been there done that: I doubt the poetic result of such an impulse toward nature would differ in any considerable way from Mary Oliver’s. Or Van Gough’s, for that matter (finished At Eternity’s Gate on Netflix last night).

My apple tree is blossoming but whatever I do with that has to be complicated in order to be taken seriously by genocide, say, or terminal brain cancer (my wheelhouse).

You are, I think, allowed to be bored by this photograph, even though I had to stand on an overturned bucket to take it.

Where does that leave us? The conclusion seems to be compromise, always compromise, and negotiation. Franz Wright gives us in Walking to Martha’s Vineyard our nature image fix but in conjunction with (I paraphrase) listening to a mother describe what it’s like to shoot up with a baby in your arms. An exploded Romanticism that gives us what we demand, for beauty is an astonishingly human demand, while reminding us of the other thing. Here I am in my 2019 collection Terminal Destination (green marker in the margin Theo’s contribution; it’s his copy):

There it is, the horror and the beauty side by side, juxtaposed.

Charles Wright

Watching this PBS NewsHour special on Charles Wright reignited an interest in me in the work of one of my longstanding poet spirit guides: First contact for me came in 2009. Twelve years ago! I don’t know if it was his fire specifically or a more general fire for poetry that spread to me and caught and hasn’t really ever stopped burning since fall, 2009. The creative writing poetry class I’d enrolled in at Calvin College was taught by Lew Klatt (L.S. Klatt) and he had assigned Negative Blue alongside along collection or two beside his weekly handouts. This sort of selected poems of Wright’s has remained to my possession to this day because I lost it before returning to China after graduation in 2010 and found it again (among my mother’s books, I think) a while after Lili and I came from Beijing to visit summer 2014 when I had the seizure that incinerated any future I’d planned for us in China.

I can remember one night stepping out the lower back door of the house which I rented in 2009 with a few other guys to smoke a Turkish Camel and savor those first ecstatic rushes of my own poems coming at last, the release of those pent up energies, and “poet” a name for what I was already, what I already knew I was, but the moon above me was Wright’s squid, I think, or was it the eye of an octopus? I wrote an ecstatic email to Professor Klatt. He replied: “Fire in the belly is good, but …” you have to follow through, put in the work, labor in the field, or something to that effect.

I can still identify with Wright’s statement in his interview where he calls poetry his “reason for living.” That my acquaintanceship with his work is the same age as his Sestets which close out the big collected Oblivion Banjo gives me a personal sense of profound connection, even import. I wanted Oblivion Banjo badly as soon as I discovered it on Wikipedia and Lili tolerantly ordered me a copy for my 34th birthday. So I’ve been working my way through this last section of six-liners:

Something about this one encapsulates Wright for me: “but that was then, when our hearts were meat on a grill.” How vulnerable we are. As a boy I often said I wasn’t good at anything and felt down on myself. Sports are hard to excel at without lots of practice and growing up homeschooled without brothers I didn’t have much and I never excelled in sports despite trying baseball, basketball, soccer …. Then in the area of music I did only a little better but it wasn’t until age 16 that I showed any interest in learning an instrument.

“The past is dark.” I remember Wright in another interview describing a locked chest of early writings he was afraid to open and I suspect we all have a chest somewhere who have pushed through those early awkward stages of apprenticeship. What a turn in the poem, though, are those shoes and that flashlight! The abstract suddenly realized. Concretized. With “But what shoes!” achieves the Wright tone of awestruck wonder that is one of poetry’s greatest treasures. THEN, as if that we not enough, read the rest of the line, that devilishly broken line.

A Note on Rae Armantrout

Rae Armantrout discusses language poetry as a response to what she calls “the spin.” Poets in the Vietnam generation becoming aware of distortions of language in mass media countered with distortions of their own, demonstrating how far our words are from transparent, disputing the mimetic quality of our poems, and raising an abstract hand against the concrete imagism advocated by the modernists.

One thing that’s hitting me right now as I work with Armantrout and her postmodern cohorts in my Norton’s Postmodern American Poetry is how much of my language I had been holding back, barring, or otherwise choosing to exclude from my poems in the attempt to be as concrete as possible with the model of James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” a poem whose full title I can never exactly remember it is so painfully precise.

I imagine there is a delineation between sacred and secular at stake here. Wright’s hammock circumscribes a contemplative space. Rae Armantrout dips a toe into the pool of descriptive natural imagery, too, but her poems never really settle in there. They’re far more expansive, or inclusive. The influence of television is often present, for example, carrying on modernism’s tradition of matching the high with the low. The exciting thing about following her lead and delving into language or postlanguage poetry is unfettered freedom to draw on each and every thing that constitutes daily experience. In the evenings now when I log on Netflix I have my notebook open and Facebook posts are as valuable a resource to me as the wicker chair on my back deck.

In some ways I had already been retreating from the pastoral mode ever since a close friend accused me of mining all my images from the back yard. The flight can be felt in Baldy and memory is a greater resource in Far Other, whose project parallels Saint Augustine’s Confessions with its backward gaze. Whatever the case might be, the literary world is still rife with James Wright’s and that stronghold is likely to hold onto some idea of poetry as a protected domain, a conventicle some way apart from the worlds of commerce and popular culture.