Todd Moore | Photo: Pete Jonsson
up like bro
What are the stakes in american poetry? What is the writing of poetry really all about? Is it about getting the prizes, is it about lucking into all that grant money, is it about those cushy teaching positions? The real stakes have nothing to do with awards, fellowships, paid readings, or who kisses who’s ass. What are the real stakes of american poetry?
Which implies risking something, which implies gambling and if you are a poet and you haven’t figured out that the raw blood visceral act of wrestling the words onto the paper isn’t a huge gamble then you are fucked from the beginning. You are not only fucked but you are finished because when you write a poem you are betting with all of your skin and blood and guts and dreams that what you are writing will somehow surprise the cosmos and maybe just maybe tease a poetry editor somewhere into publishing it in a hard copy zine or posting it on an internet website. That’s the minimum. Jacks or better for openers.
Maybe if you are lucky, if you are very very lucky you will write something as powerful as Miklos Radnoti’s The Angel of Dread. Or, maybe if luck and arrogance and a dash of genius visit you in the cellar of your nightmare, you will write something almost as good as Vasko Popa’s Burning Shewolf. Luck and arrogance and a dash of genius. Maybe bourbon if you need bourbon or a piece of ass if you need a piece of ass. Writing poetry has nothing to do with how well read you are. You can have books pouring out of the windows of your house and never ever write a great poem. Mediocre poems yes, but great poems, no. Reading helps but reading alone does not give you the visions. Reading alone does not arm you with language. Reading alone does not plug you into the power circuit of the universe.
According to an old story, while Picasso was painting GUERNICA an acquaintance dropped by and watched the artist at work on the horse. After a few patient minutes, the acquaintance said, Excuse me, but what is the secret? After all, aren’t you just simply using paint? Picasso paused a moment, applied a few more brush strokes and then without turning around said, I always shake three drops of my own blood into the paint before I begin. Then, once I start painting the electricity pours out. Picasso waited a few moments before turning around and said, But, this doesn’t work for everyone.
Not long ago I was sitting in an Albuquerque coffee house writing a poem. I was seated near the window and had a clear view of the mountains from there. And, even though I was not looking at the mountains while I was writing I could somehow sense them out there and that made me feel good and the poem was coming very quickly. It was about the way that I write. In fact, I had the first couple of lines even before I started writing. It went, the way that I write is strictly fuck you. I don’t usually write poems about writing poems but this one felt raw and edgy and jagged all the way through and that somehow let me write the poem. It only took a couple of minutes to get it all down and as I recall I didn’t cross out many words in the process. When I was finished a poet I knew walked over and said, I noticed you were writing something. Is it a poem? I said, Yes. And, he said, it looks like you got maybe two dozen good lines. I should let you alone so you can finish it. I smiled and said, It is finished. He said, how can you work so fast. It always takes me days before I know I have a poem I can live with. I grinned and said, Because it pisses death off that I can write so quick.
What are the stakes in american poetry when you want to be an Outlaw Poet? What are the stakes then? Do you think you will be interviewed on NPR? Maybe maybe not, but your chances are better at not. Do you think Garrison Keillor will feature you reading a poem on Lake Woebegone? Not unless your name is Billy Collins and Collins doesn’t even come close to being an Outlaw Poet.
What are the stakes in american poetry when you know you are not just competing against Charles Bukowski but you are also going up against Walt Whitman, Federico Garcia Lorca, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda? What are the stakes then when you realize that this is an all or nothing gamble. A fight to the finish, a throw of the dice, a shove of the chips, an all in bet the farm motherfucker because what really matters is the gesture and if you can somehow go completely crazy and write the everything poem and don’t get me wrong writing that big poem is intimately sutured into the gesture so well the whole thing the whole act the whole ritual is one and the same then this is something that takes everyone on and comes this close like Hart Crane with THE BRIDGE only even just a little closer than he ever could, then it’s the bet that counts, the bet and the poem because isn’t that what all ballsy poets do?
I showed a friend of mine a rough draft of this essay and he said, You were wrong to compare yourself to poets like Lorca and Whitman and Neruda. They’re so far above us, they’re giants. I could never think of grandstanding like that. I could never be that arrogant. I replied, That’s where you and I are different. As for arrogance, that’s just my game.
What are the stakes in nightmare american poetry where you can write your guts out like Jack Micheline and die on a Bart Train, what are the stakes in trainwreck american poetry when you have risked your whole life on maybe a dozen or so chapbooks, a hundred plus page perfect bound book, and you end up living in a renovated chicken house with no plumbing and a potbellied stove like Kell Robertson. Only everything, only what passes for a life and a bet on the poem. And, I’m not supposed to compare myself to Pablo Neruda. Well, amigo, fuck that.
What are the stakes in gun them down america for a poet to just go out there without the benefit of workshop, classroom, craft spin, and bullshit? What are the stakes for a poet to just guts it out, just write the poem like it was the first and last blood testament of an american outlaw? And, it needs to be a blood testament or else it is nothing. It needs to bleed out of you and it needs to bleed off the page.
What are the stakes here where poetry has been hustled, pimped, and swindled beyond recognition, where nobody reads it because it sounds like more spin doctors working the same language con? What are the stakes now in an america where poetry is little more than noise, theory, and erasure? We’ve hit the cul-de-sac, the proverbial dead end and the stakes are high, they are very high.