Writing What to Do About Poetry

WHEN I came to Harvard, I had never read Pope or Chancer or Dryden or Wordsworth, and the only reason I knew who Robert Lowell was was because I had read about him in Time. In school, I had been taught that poetry was different from prose, but I didn't really know what the difference meant. I did know that I wanted to try and write poems, though, and because I had an understanding and indulgent teacher, I spent the spring term of my senior year of high school writing an autobiographical poem. It was so long and so intense that I could hardly read it even then, but I learned a lot about writing from it. It was a great adventure that I couldn't have done without.

As a freshman, I barely squeaked into Theodore Morrison's English Fa, in spite of, rather than because of, my opus. From Professor Morrison I learned about structure and diction, how to rhyme, how to write blank verse, what fourteeners are: the real stuff of verse composition. I learned how to confine myself to form, how to think thoughts of ten beats. I could scan anything, I learned by examples what poetry really was: the structured, symbolic expression of certain ideals, especially the Good and the Beautiful.

I became a Poet. I translated other poets, among them Horace and Catullus. I read Robert Lowell and L. E. Sissman (I wasn't proud), and walked around feeling, and wondering when I'd first win the National Book Award. I began to sound like Lowell, too. Not that I could write the way he could: but I absorbed his diction the way I absorbed the rest of Harvard. And along with his speech. I began to mimic Lowell's aimless guilt and sense of inadequacy; I became tortured, at eighteen. I wanted to check into McLean. I didn't know why any more than I knew what Robert Lowell was talking about, but the vagueness was part of the attraction of the posture. I felt hermetic and estranged and incomprehensible, and that was fine. I was expressing myself in pure poetry, and if only the elite understood, that was how it had to be. They understood at the Advocate.

The Advocate was one place where people refused to talk polities even during the strike, and it was venerable, if dilapidated. Most members seemed a little cowed by their traditions, and left everything to a few assertive types who ran the magazine as they saw fit. Unruffied by undergraduate concerns, the Advocate persisted tenaciously at being whatever it was, and resolutely reasserted itself as a functioning quarterly the year I joined. This was regarded by some as a kind of rejuvenation, but the contents, when they were from Harvard, remained hopelessly Lowellian, and the sales continued to droop. At Harvard, hardly anyone read the Advocate.

BUT I didn't care, because I'd been accepted into Lowell's poetry class. I'd finally made it. Only it turned out to be two hours a week of twenty-five young literati and five old ladies. The young literati wore black capes and wrote poems about the Resurrection, and the old ladies smiled and wrote sonnets about clouds. Lowell himself tried to smile and said mean things in nice ways about everything. We were all very respectful, and very frustrated, especially the blind man whose cigarettes Lowell chain-smoked week after week, and whose seeing-eye dog growled every time the big poet cracked a dirty joke.

It was a tough winter. I was afraid that poetry might be as dead as it seemed, as dead as I was making it. My own poems sounded as if they'd been written in 1908. Even the Berryman Dream Songs I got for Christmas, ingenious and moving as they were, seemed somehow too contrived, too removed from brutality and the raw news to speak with any authority. My aunt, who gave me the book (and is no fool), didn't understand it. And she likes Sylvia Plath, I couldn't fault her for not hearing Berryman-he wasn't talking to her. He was busy talking to Henry. It was often superb if you could figure it out, but why should we?

Then I read Bill Knott's Naomi Poems, the freshest lyrics, the most unabashedly real attempts at poems I'd come across in a long time. Some of them were bad, some were awkward, but the voice was true, untutored but true. This man has been going after poetry in his own fashion; he hadn't been following anyone's advice. As a result, his poems said what he meant, unconstrained by mentors and models and cliques.

Later, I heard Jean Genet at a Black Panther rally at M.I.T. I had gone to see Genet, not to hear him, but I did hear him make the straightest, most eloquent plea for justice and honesty that could have been made. He moved me out of my apathetic sensibility and aesthetic neuralgia, and I had an inkling of what writers can do in this kind of a time. He made me feel how poetry can be immediate and alive, and he made me understand that what is most vital now is what is illicit, what is deemed anti-social and irresponsible and destructive by apologists for an outgrown sensibility, I learned about Pope and Dryden and rime royall, and I feel more for poetry because of it. But truly, Allen Ginsberg is more of a poet for us here, now, than W. H. Auden. We have more to learn from Denise Levertov than from Archibald MacLeish. We must be aware that there are writers who are looking ahead as far as any men, and when we are told that Elizabeth Bishop has written the best book of poems for 1969, we should not believe it. Elizabeth Bishop wrote brilliantly for the 1940s. But we have not even seen the best poems for 1969. We have not been able to find them in the New Yoker, or Poetry, or the Advocate, for that matter. We need to start looking somewhere else.

WE DO NOT even know our own literature. We have been brought up on what D. H. Lawrence called the pale-faces of American literature, the bank tellers and insurance salesmen who wrote about existence in the evenings. We don't know about the red-skins, the Whitmans and Williamses and Ginsbergs and Olsons who didn't want to be English or metaphysical, but wrote about themselves in their own idiom. These poets are more ours than any others because they have written our language.

But who knows that Charles Olson died in January? A young assistant professor tells me, "You don't have to be a derelict to write about it. Read 'The Wasteland.'" I have read "The Wasteland": I suggested that he read "Howl." But it's too diffuse for him, too self-indulgent, too negative. He prefers Robert Frost.

What does it take to wake us up? There is an American poetry more vital than Snodgrass, better than Brautigan, that we don't know about, that we can hardly even read because all along we've been taught to emulate a sensibility that just isn't our own. There was a vigor in my long high school poem, bad as it was, that nothing I've written since has equalled. Nobody's going to show us the books we need to be reading, especially not here. We have to find them for ourselves.

Whether it is motivated by conviction or aspiration, or whether its intent is simply to describe and express, poetry reveals as intensely as possible the situation that the poet recognizes. It is a highly personal and, at the same time, a powerfully affecting way of knowing what is going on. If we read only what is presented to us in the classroom and at the Coop, we cannot have a full picture of what poets are saying to us today. Too many of us have been blind to this. But things do change: and the Advocate means to change.

We are trying to rise up and shake off the wellwrought snares of our past. But it takes time, and interest. We want manuscripts and ideas. We're offering two prizes this spring, and two speakers: Diane Wakoski, a talented, gutsy young poet, tonight, and Norman Mailer on Sunday. Finally, we're distributing the Advocate free to students for the first time. When you find the Advocate under your door this month, we hope you'll read it, and then come tell us about it.( The author is the President of the Harvard Advocate.)