WHAT KIND OF POETRY DO YOU WRITE?
by Michael Van Walleghen
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In my experience, one of the most exquisitely difficult questions I might be asked at a social gathering full of distant relatives—a wedding reception or a funeral maybe, should it accidentally come to light that I am indeed a poet— always goes something like this: What kind of poetry do you write?
It just won't do to say: How the hell do I know? which is closer to the truth than some of the things I've been forced to invent. But over the years a pretty good alternative answer has been: I write free verse and rely for the most part on my own experience. That usually takes care of it. Hardly anyone still able to walk and speak after an hour or two of free drinks will ask me to go ahead and recite something. Still, it's an honest question. People are interested. They want to know; although you can be sure they would never actually read that stuff, even at gunpoint.
Back when I was an undergraduate at Wayne State University in Detroit, the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet W.D. Snodgrass, the most brilliant teacher I ever encountered, a god from my point of view, once handed back a poem of mine with the marginal notation “merely clever,” written on it in red ink. It went through me like a spear; and I obviously took it way, way too seriously. I embraced that remark to the point where any display of humor at all in my work became suspicious and problematical for a good long time.
But being “clever,” as I have since come to find out, is not the same thing as having a genuine sense of humor. When I look in the bookstore these days at Contemporary American Poetry, I find that often, I'm just overwhelmed. There's a whole middle range of pretty good, clever stuff out there, no question, but who is it that I want to buy? Finally, it's usually the cleverness factor that makes the decision for me. The voice I'm thinking of in these “pretty good” poems (the poet–critic Randall Jarrell once invited his readers to think about the notion of a pretty good egg in this regard) is invariably insouciant, chatty, and self–regarding, and while the poems themselves might seem otherwise competent, they do not invite re–reading. Instead, they seem merely indulgent and fueled by pure ambition somehow. They go in for gaudy effects, often, but lack a fundamental seriousness that I think even very funny poems, if they're anything more than literary cartoons, necessarily possess.
Which brings me back to that baffling question: What kind of poetry do you write?
Beyond the fact that I write free verse, I can only say that I am interested primarily in the mystery of my own life, which is not settled and has of yet no answer beyond the occasional, epiphanic glimpse at meaning afforded by poetry itself. Simply put, I write my life, a difficult ongoing puzzle to me, poem by poem. And I have certain areas of fascination—one of which involves the boundaries and intersections of our psychological, or spiritual states with the world of everyday, objective reality. We have a dream life, for instance, an unconscious if you will, that now and then, as happens often in poetry, can make itself unexpectedly manifest in the most ordinary of circumstances— moments when looking from a lighted kitchen into a night–black window on a winter evening, for example, when we might suddenly become aware, not only of our own reflection there, but also of our complicity in some deeper mystery altogether.
If one is to explore this mystery, each poem has to first solve whatever formal problems the experience presents as brute fact on the way to becoming a metaphor—and ideally, an insight that aspires to the condition of art. It is a process that allows for no formulas or easy answers. Everything, including the valuable tool of humor, has to be in the service of the fundamental mystery of Being, of having a place to stand. So, who knows what kind of poetry I write? Not the Guggenheim Foundation apparently, and not many other people either. But, if I can possibly help it, I would prefer that it not be the clever kind.