Poets, Poems, Poetry Readings
Imperfect Thirst by Galway Kinnell Houghton Mifflin, $12.95
One day, if it has not happened already, some Ph.D. candidate will write a dissertation on the effect of poetry readings on the practice of poetry in 20th-century America. The poetry reading itself has a venerable tradition--in the Woodberry Poetry Room, one can listen to a virtual roll-call of American poets reading at Harvard, from T.S. Eliot '10 to Robert Lowell and beyond. But, at some point, perhaps in the 1960s, the act of reading one's poems aloud to an audience--one of the main ways poetry is consumed today, and a source of income for virtually every poet--clearly started to affect the way poems themselves are written.
A nice illustration of this was offered at the Brattle Theater on Tuesday, when Donald Hall and Galway Kinnell read as part of the Wordsworth Presents series. Hall and Kinnell are two very different poets, in style and in their range of concerns; but in addition to sharing a publisher, their poems share a conversational tone that at times makes them sound like a monologue or a stand-up routine. The poems in both of their new books are largely free-form, unmetered, anecdotal and sometimes jokey; in other words, perfect for reading aloud to an audience, especially an audience that hasn't read them before.
Each of these poets has come to this tone in a different way. Hall's long and venerable career, beginning (as he writes in "The Old Life," the central poem of his book) "on the Advocate in nineteen forty-eight," has taken him through a range of styles. After an early phase of neat, metrical poems, and a later bout with surrealism, his poetry has more recently developed certain regular characteristics: the use of ordinary diction; an engagement with certain issues, especially family history, the difference between urban and rural life and the approach of death; and, frequently, the use of a central conceit, sometimes quite fantastic, to structure his poems. This last tendency is best illustrated in The Museum of Clear Ideas, Hall's 1993 book, in which one poem is framed as his explanation the game of baseball to Kurt Schwitters, the Dada collagist.
In The Old Life, Hall establishes connections to these older books--the volume's first poem, "The Night of the Day," continues the story of his 1988 book The One Day, while the second, "The Thirteenth Inning," takes up the Schwitters premise. But the bulk of the book, and the bulk of what Hall read Tuesday, is the title poem, a long agglomeration of short, free-form, highly autobiographical segments. This is "confessional poetry" carried to an extreme--Hall writes exactly what has happened to him, from age 4 to last year, including precise names, dates and locations. The language is not much heightened from ordinary prose, so the imagination lies in the organization of material--what to include, and how to arrange it for maximum effect.
The poem includes, by and large, just the events one might expect: personal landmarks, such as learning to read, meeting famous poets in college and getting married, as well as some historical events, such as the Korean War and the moon landing. No elaborate premises here, no conceits; just snapshots from a whole life, perhaps the life most representative of American poetry in our time.
Hall went to Harvard, and some of the sequence takes place here; naturally, he read these poems to great enthusiasm on Tuesday. In one, he reminisces about Gordon Cairnie, the old owner of the Grolier Book Shop; in another, he talks about meeting Wallace Stevens at The Game and inviting him to a party at the Advocate. But the very success of such injokes at the Brattle--it was almost possible to see people thinking, "Hey, I've been to the Grolier!"--makes one wonder about the enduring interest of these poems. To fully appreciate them seems to require a set of shared assumptions--knowledge of Harvard and Cambridge, or at least of the world of professional poetry--that a general readership can't be expected to have. Or, even worse, perhaps the average reader of this book will have it--meaning that a few thousand readers of little magazines and poets' memoirs comprise the audience for a book of poetry today.
When "The Old Life's" interest doesn't lie in local reference, it often comes from a kind of humor that is closely related to stand-up comedy. Hall, an experienced reader who turns each poem into an expert performance piece, drew big laughs with poems about Steven's swearing, and about a literary game he played in college, "The Giant Broom." But while these pieces are funny, they are not necessarily poetry; remove the line breaks and you have simply an anecdote. In other words, if T.S. Eliot's poetry was stylistically artificial and thematically impersonal, and Robert Lowell's was artificial but personal, Donald Hall's is personal and plain.
While the same cannot be said for Galway Kinnell's poetry--it's full of flights of fancy and elaborate metaphors--it nevertheless shares with Hall's a quality of being designed for performance. The title of the volume, Imperfect Thirst, comes from the book's aptly chosen epigram: "If your eyes are not deceived by the mirage/Do not be proud of the sharpness of your understanding;/It may be your freedom from this optical illusion/Is due to the imperfection of your thirst." In other words, skepticism is the sign of spiritual deformity, rather than a necessary sign of the times. This is certainly Kinnell's credo in these poems, where images of paradise and heaven recur very frequently; while he doesn't come right out and say he believes in God and Heaven, he leaves no doubt that he's thirsty for them.
Oddly, this quality of spiritual longing, expressed with a great deal of hopefulness and uplift, gives Kinnell's poetry something of the affect of 19th-century religious verse, in which Heaven and angels are never far away. The difference is that Kinnell's paradises are earthbound, and sometimes found in odd places; in "Parkinson's Disease," for example, he describes a paralyzed old man, living in his daughter's care, as about "to pass from this paradise into the next." Here, being loved and cared for reveals paradise; elsewhere, it's found in sexual union. The book has three rather explicit poems, including "The Rapture," in which Kinnell describes sex and orgasm in spiritual terms. (Interestingly, this poem was met with utter, embarrassed silence on Tuesday, as if there are still some taboos on public confession, even in Cambridge.)
Kinnell's spirituality is conveyed in a designedly accessible package. His poems, generally, are rhapsodic monologues, which seem carelessly laid out on the page, but take on a vivid energy when he reads them. On Tuesday night, the audience clearly loved him and them, responding with exclamations and applause at all the right moments. And, as with Hall, some of his poems verge on comedy; a real crowd-pleaser on Tuesday was "The Deconstruction of Emily Dickinson," in which the poet imagines telling off a pompous, Derridaspouting professor. It's a clear set-up with an easy pay-off; Kinnell even put on an odious voice when reading the professor's lines, making sure that we knew with whom we were to sympathize. Here, too, the influence of the poetry reading is evident; this poem is meant to be read, or more accurately to be acted, in front of an audience that both knows its lit-crit and knows that it reveals a greatness of soul to despise it.
In the end, it would not be fair to be to single out Hall and Kinnell for this prosaic, performative style; it is characteristic of our period. And there is no doubt that these poets are, in their different ways, two of the most accomplished now writing; each knows what he wants to say and can say it well, which is perhaps the definition of a good poet. But if you do read them, be sure to look for the author's reading tour at a theater near you; that's where these poems are most at home.
Every night I drank beer at Cronin's with my friends, but retired by ten o'clock. An alarm woke me at six; shaggy with sleep, unshaved and uncombed, with a black binder of poetry wedged under my arm, I plugged up hill to Harvard Square and a booth at Albiani's, black coffee, Danish, a lined pad, and my Parker 51.I crossed old words out and substituted words that probably I would cross out in their turn tomorrow. After two hours I walked back to Eliot House and breakfast with the day ahead of me: lectures, Grolier, reading, Cronin's.
--from Donald Hall's The Old Life
Some old people become more upset about human foibles than they did when they were younger--part of getting ready to leave. For others, human idiocy becomes increasingly precious; they begin to see in the state of mind we will have in heaven. "What about heaven?" I said to Harold, who is ninety-four and lives in the VA Hospital in Tucson. He said, "Memory is heaven." The physicist emeritus tottering across the campus of Cal Tech through the hazy sunshine occasionally chuckles to himself. Yet it has happened to many others, and to you, too, Galway--when illness, or unhappiness, or imagining the future wears an empty place inside us, the idea of paradise elsewhere quickly fills it.
--from Galway Kinnell's Imperfect Thirst