Steven Ross Smith
The problem with having a blog site is that it needs regular fresh content, followed up by social media posts to attract readers. Some of us are not that efficient. I’ve been thinking about that since it is fourteen months since my last post. As a result, I expect that my readership is falling off, from a few then into sub-zero zones now. So today I thought, “I’d better get at it.” But what to write about? Seems I’m in a poetic withdrawal, so maybe it’s time for a confessional.
For the first time in many many years I feel a certain lethargy around my ‘poetic practice’ – the pursuit of my own poetic energy through daily attention. I’ve held many workshops where I’ve encouraged writers to write regardless of their emotional state, their surroundings, their daily pressures. I’ve talked about overcoming writers’ blocks through consistency, reading, and so on. But here I am in the doldrums, in need of a teacher like me … or maybe not like me.
I know the mantra: write about anything; stick with it; write at least a bit everyday; read other poets; go to poetry events; and so on. I can tell myself all that but the ambivalence hangs in, low grey clouds pressed down by a temperature inversion. Oh, such self-involvement, such a feeling-sorry-for-myself.
As I type these words, an image unexpectedly pops into my head, – green and black – a book cover. It’s a book on my shelf – is music, by John Taggart. I’m not sure why, but there it is, vivid, in my mind’s eye. In a few minutes I’ll turn around to my shelf and grab that copy.
But I want to muse, or mosey, a bit further first. Hmmm … what was my line of thought? … Oh yes, writing doldrums. But contrary to my own current feelings and self-assessment, there are many poets writing today, many more than when I began pursuing the muse in the early ‘70s. Today workshops abound, university programs feed aspirants’ dreams and knowledge, readings spawn, and poetry pixilates on YouTube. Print publishing venues chew up trees, and contests and prizes promise, and even give, treasure chests of gold and fame; and so, many poets receive brief infusions – small or large – of cash to help their trembling bottom lines.
Speaking of “lines” there are resplendent varieties of the idea of the poetic line to be found in current books and magazines, recordings and videos – short punchy lines, disjunctive couplets, long lingering lines, phrases flat of sound, and syntax with muscular sonic torque, all delivering, in their own ways, interior investigations, astute observations, playful or serious articulations, formal and stylistic probings. The field is rich. The various media channels, social and broadcast, sometimes, pay attention. A few poets even become household names … well in some households anyway.
But in truth, few people read poetry, and those who do are most often the poets themselves, and students whose coursework makes such a demand. And the more unconventional the work, the less it is read or rewarded.
Now, let me confess – here we go – I consider most of my poetry, as revealed in ten books, to be unconventional. I follow my own eccentric mode – a primary interest in the materiality of language, in sound and rhythm, in the compositional possibilities of language, and in – that dirty word – experimentation. My work has not gone totally unnoticed – I have actually won two awards – but my readership, as far as I know, is tiny. My royalty statements – often in the negative – are testament to this reality.
I don’t want to be a whiner, but when I see many books and writers promoted and rewarded, I see little of the innovative work, the risky, the difficult, the demanding, the eccentric poetry there. Of course some innovators do rise … I think of John Ashbery, Nicole Brossard, Paul Celan, Lyn Hejinian, bpNichol, Daphne Marlatt, Phil Hall, Erin Moure, Fred Wah. These are writers whose work I admire and regard as distinctive. None provide immediate accessibility and easy epiphany. A reader has to spend time with their work, sometimes to puzzle it out, to dig deep into it to gain familiarity with a vocabulary, a style, and underlying poetics. But who has time, when our smart phones are pinging, when social media is delivering a panoply of news – mundane or engaging personal narratives, breaking tragic global events, cat videos, and push-notifications – or when commutes and job double-shifting eats up our spare time.
So maybe my lethargy is being fed by a feeling of drowning in that sea of life in the millennium; or is it the loneliness of neglect; or the frustrations stirred by my own unused energy – is it some or all of those that make me of question my whole enterprise? I’m beginning to wallow, alone in my study … well not exactly alone – my bookshelves contain a few hundred (or maybe a thousand) books as company.
Oh yes, John Taggart. I almost forgot. I turn to find his is music. Fortunately my books are arranged alphabetically by author, so I spot him right away, clutch and flip open the book. I read “Henry David Thoreau/Sonny Rollins”. I read “Marvin Gaye Suite.” I skim “Magdalene Poem” and “Refrains for Robert Quine.” I flip through “Slow Song For Mark Rothko.” I’ve read that piece before, several times, captivated. The pieces are rich. There’s so much there – in his space, his integrity, his artistry. The meditative space, its pace – slow, steady, repetitive, demanding attention to each line, each word, each syllable, its sensibility. The stuff of the poetry that I like – material over message, mystery over transparency, sculpted language. Doing it regardless, sticking to his guns.
In “Marvin Gaye Suite” he says: “repetition is choice you choose to be part of the party that waits.” (1.) A fine line! Indeed he uses repetition to create his language-mood-music. He is one-of–a-kind. He’s received accolades, and rightly so. “the party that waits” is possibly the individual who is willing to enter, with patience, to read and experience movement and delay, movement and interjection, delay, recapitulation, movement – his ostenato with extensions.
But my blog piece today is not about John Taggart – well, okay, it is – though I do wonder how many people have read him, experienced his brilliance, his dallying, his revelling, in music and art with words, in words with music and art? … say, compared to how many humans are watching the third game in the American League division of the World Series of baseball. (It’s that time of the year.)
John (probably), and I (definitely) did not choose – did not have the skill to choose – a career in baseball. The baseball message came to me as a kid when I was playing shortstop and a line drive drove right at me, missing my glove but finding my knackers (as they say). It wasn’t at that moment that I decided to become a poet or sound poet, but I did emit a bodily groan. Or maybe that’s when I did decide. Reading John Taggart makes me forget my lethargy, makes me want to pick up my pen, thereby proving my own theory stated earlier.
Now where was I? Oh yes, blogging. I guess, with this piece, I’ve brought currency to my blog, at least for a moment – this moment.
Gertrude Stein says there is no such thing as repetition, just insistence. Makes sense, especially when you read Taggart, or even Ms. Stein … but Taggart today, to me, seems to make more sense … though I love reading them both. I’ll read a bit of Gertrude when I’m done here. I’m getting near the end, so that will be soon.
Writing this piece today has put me back in touch with poetry, with myself even. And in a moment I’ll be in touch with Gertrude – likely Tender Buttons” or How Writing Is Written”. Then I will pull out my keyboard. Yes, my readership is tiny, but when I engage with language and my own poetic impulses, my world is immense.
1. From “Marvin Gaye Suite,” John Taggart, is music, Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2010, Port Townsend, Washington. P.174