Who Are You: Essay
by Alan Catlin
To say that America does not revere its poets is the grossest of understatements. Not only to we ignore our poets, we find ways to ridicule and marginalize them. Part of the problem of poetry in the country is the stereotypical, misrepresentation of poets as effete, somewhat not “normal” as well, as not like us. We revere rock stars or actors, people who are like us only more so as they represent who we would like to be. We sense that people who are different than us maybe be smarter in subjects we don’t value such as academics that we don’t value at all. Such as science or literature. A brief viewing of a popular show such as “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” gives us a chance to showcase our superiority by knowing the cultural referents that these so called smart people do not and we can mock them for their basic stupidity. I mean who doesn’t know the names of all the kids on the Brady Bunch? Or Little House on the Prairie? Two shows alas, I confess, have never seen. So much for my Lifeline.
Popular culture figures are acceptable until they violate the established social code. Once there is speck of revolution attached to a musician, for instance, think of the fates of jazz musicians throughout the fifties, the rock stars of the sixties, and the media finds a way to appropriate the work and turn it into a Mercedes Benz commercial or a Nike commercial. I can easily imagine Janis Joplin returning from the dead and beating “those fuckers” to death with a pool cue. Those fuckers being the ad executives who used one of her signature songs in an advertising campaign. I imagine her saying exactly that as she was doing it, as well. And if it weren’t for the brutal inhumanity of it, you’d cheer her on.
Poets are often perceived as seventeenth century fops, in outlandish costumes, with perfumed hankies up their sleeves, or their modern day’s degenerate equivalents. Occasionally, a true original like Marianne Moore will captivate the public’s imagination but who among them could honesty say they actually read or understood a single poem that she wrote?
I expect none of these image makers had read some of those supposedly effete seventeenth century poets as say, John Donne, whose exquisite, though, admittedly not easily- accessible-to-the-average-reader, love poetry. Or Lord Rochester’s often obscene lyrics? Do I need to add heterosexual lyrics to the equation?
And what of Chaucer, easily the raunchiest classical poet of all time? Who, who has read him, could forget the monk’s farting contest, the oft married Wife of Bath, or the Miller’s Tale about the cuckolded husband that would inspire the never-accused-of-prudery, Erica Jong to write,
“Chaucer was right
Those people who can’t tell
deserve to be fucked
with their eyes open”
The lack for recognition for poets in America could be summed up in a brief exchange at a workshop with Galway Kinnell, one of the more revered and honored poets of his age, who was asked something to effect of, “What it does it feel like to be a famous poet?” “There is no such thing as a famous poet.”
Before there was trivialization or, maybe it is in addition to trivialization, there was Death. Death as a Romantic notion directly derived from the British tradition of dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse: Keats, Byron, Shelley (though it was unlikely his was a beautiful corpse given how he died from drowning but he was still very young and foolish). If you didn’t kill yourself through your personal and habits: drinking, drugging, wild and reckless sex (we should leave Keats out of this equation but Byron did all of the above enough to compensate for another’s personal lack of excessive bad behaviors) you could always go mad and then kill yourself, usually in tandem with one or more of the listed perennial vices hastening the decline.
The fifties and the reactive sixties were a fruitful time of self-indulgence and death. You don’t have to have read “Howl” to know how the story goes (a poem that has been diminished, alas, by quoting the poem endlessly, but usually only the part” I have seen the best minds of my generation…..”read the whole damn poem and see why this is a dangerous statement against the established order) nor a fan of Sylvia Plath to bring out all the bodies. John Berryman waved goodbye to all this as he jumped from the bridge but what was he waving goodbye to? A culture that kills; if you can’t incorporate them, domesticate them (a reading of Sir Francis Bacon short essays could be instructive. What he says four hundred years ago still applies now. Domesticity is was what the fifties were all about after all. And how empty it had become) The new millennium is all about the extrapolated stage of domesticating the thinking beast through
anesthetizing him. A dead. wet brain is a non-discriminating brain. And it doesn’t ask questions.
If you are reading this I am willing to bet that you are college educated, a reader, of books primarily, but of electronic devices, as well. Television is of minimal interest, though you like PBS and films, as opposed to movies, most of which are mindless exploitative nonsense (see brain dead). You know that Longfellow was not only not the premier poet of his time, but not even a very good one at any time in literary history. Poetry doesn’t necessary have to rhyme but it can. In fact, if pressed, you would have a difficult time explaining exactly what poetry is and why it is important, though you know it is something that is essential in your life.
Recently, I had a curious discussion about exactly who I was as a poet. The person who asked me termed what I was doing, with my narrative work set in bars as, Cowboy poetry by which he meant, trivial. I won’t argue about the true value of such writing but I think writing about real life as you know it has a real place in our poetry.
I have repeatedly tried to explain my poetic interests as follows: that while I went to college and graduate school to learn Literature that, through only some fault of my own, I ended up “stuck” in a profession that had nothing to do with literature. What it did have to do with was Life. I considered then, and still consider now, that my real education began the first day I stepped behind a bar and began making drinks. As I said in once in a story I wrote, “I was learning more about life in sixty seconds having my head stuffed inside a public toilet than in seven and half years of college.”
My early work was dedicated to carrying on what I thought of as in-the-oral-tradition. It is vulgar, outrageous, darkly humorous, and tragic, usually all at the same time. Just like working in a bar. It took me a long term to realize that making drinks is what your body did while your mind did other things. Later, I would learn it was a movie or a psycho drama and the people who came into the bar were the characters and it was up to you to discover what their roles were going to be.
Writing about the tawdry side of life, bars in particular, brands you as a special kind of low life, a Bukowski clone, though anyone who has spent hours alone with a drunk, or even a few minutes with a psychotic, or been one or both yourself, knows there is a lot more to drinking than getting drunk and acting out.“He seemed to have a knack of attracting those whom fate had used most harshly, life’s misfits. Perhaps it was because of his own experiences had always been hard too; tragic, grotesque, or merely sordid. Never, it seemed did anything agreeable or even ordinary happen to him.”
These lines written by psychological, noir novelist Georges Simenon, about one of the characters in his novels (Not a Maigret. In my mind, Simenon is one of the best psychological novelists of his time. Easily on a par with the great, more heralded, French writers of his time But that is another topic for another time) could easily be a summation of my early life in and outside of bars and I have the scars to prove it.
The other main concern of my poetry during that time was confessional writing, an interest that directly from unresolved personal issues involving my mad mother. I saw these poems in the tradition of Lowell and Plath and Sexton and Berryman all of whom influenced by thinking on the subject. Once I survived the follies of Youth, I could see also where these confessional poet’s lives lead. It would not be an insignificant discovery.
Gradually, however, the “I” has disappeared from my poems to the point where I could tell a fellow poet that it is not inconceivable that I would never write another poem again using the first person personal. By which I meant to the exclusion of persona poems where using an I is impossible to avoid but by no means represents the author. In fact, I wrote a whole book of “Self-Portraits” in which I appears, I believe three times, twice in quotes and once in a persona poem.
I told the poet/artists who wanted to know who I was in all of this,” My goal is to remove myself completely from the poems so that only the subject is left.” Something I had done completely in the poems I wrote to his Artwork, of all of which were spare, abstract, imagistic, egoless poetry.
The answer to his question is, the poet is as elusive as his subject and shall remain so, as poetry is elusive and allusive. There are no real rules and what rules there are made to be broken. I see no contradiction in writing thousands of poems about street life and esoteric poetry about Art at the same time. I see no reason why I could not write purely conceptual poems about music or haiku like poems about the natural world. I once read a critical comment about an author where the reviewer thought it was extremely odd that the author loved opera and baseball. equally. I say, why not?