Yesterday I reread the poet Ted Berrigan’s work, and critical essays about him, and got so turned on I wrote three or four poems. Of course I sent them prematurely to Ruth, and C and Carla, and only later saw how unready they are, how glaringly full of clichés and errors. Today I am working on them more, and just wrote another one, using Berrigan’s technique of cutting and pasting lines, disrupting the syntactical flow in order to get more jagged edges, and especially in order to see the poem as a built thing rather than just an emotional outpouring.
In Berrigan’s aesthetic, especially in his Sonnets, lines are like building blocks, like Legos, and you can fasten them and unfasten them and refasten them to other lines in new and interesting ways. He uses lots of repetition and variation.
I’ve never been a language poet—quite the opposite, I lean too heavily in the direction of meaning I think, which sometimes makes my poems weighty and non-musical—but I appreciate what language poets do. They revivify and refresh, they wake us up to the tired old ways we habitually use English, they delight in serendipity, and their integrity lies in being true to the rules they themselves set up.
I’ll always love everyday speech. The other night C and I were eating at the little hole-in-the-wall restaurant we like, just a tiny local place, and a couple of young women were at the next table talking loudly about how much they loved “Mowatt.” (Moet champagne.) They interrupted themselves occasionally to yell at a little four-year-old boy climbing all over the chairs, whose head was covered in braids, named Michael.
The most formative poet for me was probably William Carlos Williams who knew how to take this kind of speech and make great poems out of it. He was unafraid to be plain, daily and awkward.
That’s the challenge, if you’re working with this kind of material—not to “transform” it, which just calls attention to the poet, but to let what is already in it shine through. To let it transform, in its own way, on its own terms. When I was younger, n older poet looked at my work and suggested I do what Berrigan had done—the cut and paste thing. I was offended. I had worked so hard to achieve coherence and meaning. Every line in my poems was precious to me, it was all set in concrete, and now he was suggesting that I just throw it up in the air and see where the pieces settle? Never!
Now I’ve been mining that vein of coherence and meaning until I’m tired of it. Now I see the value of breaking my own patterns and throwing things up in the air. Now I want to play and experiment.
My editor from NY just called to see if I checked the revision of the essay about playing tennis with C that will appear in MORE in June. They changed the title to “A Perfect Match”—not my idea. I don’t like the word “perfect”—it seems hubristic to me. And C and I are from perfect, either as individuals or a couple. What we are is stubborn and lucky, and willing. We’ve been humbled enough to be willing. But God save me from perfect or from anyone talking about their perfect relationship. I don’t trust that and I hope I never give that impression.
My editor and I started talking and got on the subject of The Wire, which C and I watch with feverish interest, occasionally pausing the DVD to ask each other, “What just happened? What did they say?” My editor said that Obama watches The Wire too, and that his favorite character is Omar.
I feel like I should be working on essays not poetry—essays are more lucrative, when and if I can actually sell them. (Big if.) But poems keep coming. Essays are work, poetry is obsession. The solution, as always, is more coffee.