Offhand Poetics, by Ron Gaskill, jerseyworks editor
Your editor has accumulated a few insights lately and therefore will go out on a limb and briefly summarize his
esthetics of poetry, not claiming to have anything deep to add to the subject, but hoping to have something mildly interesting to say
to potential contributors and fellow idlers who have time to read this. Actually, three other people had the mentioned insights
and found me in a condition willing to listen to them. The first person was my friend Eddie, the second was my friend Bill,
and the third was my wife Susan. Eddie said "courage." Bill said a poem should be like the sound of one hand clapping,
and Susan said a poem should be "in your face." Eddie's contribution, spoken at the bar in the Tuckahoe Inn as little more than
that single gravel-voiced word, "courage," is the easiest idea to understand, which I believe is related to
Sartre's principle that a writer must be engaged in the world. As for my own self personally, it doesn't matter that a poet be
engaged in the world, only that he or she be engaged, period, even if it is with his or her own daydreams. This principle cleanly
eliminates all poetry written to please editors, friends, writing groups and professors. Not that there's anything wrong with these
people; some of my best friends are friends, and one of them is even a professor. They can be helpful, such as when one of them tells you
that a line is a clunker (which you really knew anyway; you just need to pay closer attention to yourself) but they cannot be
completely trusted. A rule of thumb would be to take a kind of snotty attitude toward these helpers, not publically and
interpersonally, but privately and in your own poetic
realm only, there maintaining the kind of respect for them that you would have
for a good butler. You can't trust anybody when
it comes to your poetry. Never forget that you are the center and star of your poetry universe— not that all of us need
encouragement in this direction. By courage, I think Eddie meant also that one must do whatever necessary to keep one's
poetry alive, must make
the personal choices that lead to its survival. In almost any period, there is the political aspect, too, meaning that one
cannot let fear have a voice in what one is willing to say, just as Sartre's concept of engagement came out of his
involvement in the French resistance to the Nazi occupation.
Possibly I cannot elaborate upon the thought that a poem
be like the sound of one hand clapping, but I will attempt a
few words anyway, because that's what I do and because one or two jerseyworks readers might need help with this. The way Bill
expressed the idea, as we were walking east toward Broadway on West 70th Street, was about how a poem feels when it is done,
the self-sufficient completeness that is not there until the last line is written. The poem can be revised, but it should not
be messed with. A nice image can be found in Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica": "A poem should be motionless in time / as
the moon climbs."
Susan's insight is contained in another bar story. This one
happened at the piano bar at the Merion Inn in Cape May.
It was a December evening. Outside, the Victorian houses were glowing with Christmas lights in the steady, chilling drizzle.
George Mesterhazy was playing jazz tunes on the piano. My wife and I, in our best sweaters and our leather jackets
and she wearing her new Lagos earrings and her hair jelled and spiked, were quite underdressed in that jeweled
and party-dressed holiday crowd.
Into our second carafe of cabernet, we got into a conversation with a guy in sport coat and tie and of approximately my own
vintage about three stools to our left. He had attended Holy Spirit in Atlantic City during the same years I had been
at Atlantic City High School, and of course we knew quite a few people in common. He mentioned
a pair of brothers who had a bit of a tough streak, such as tough streaks were in those civilized days. The younger of the
two, who weighed about two-twenty when he was fifteen, played catcher on a team that was our rival in Babe Ruth baseball.
"Oh, yeah, I knew those guys," I said. "X and I had a pretty good collision at home plate once." Bingo. An image
crossed years and connected them. "That's it, it's
right in your face,"
Susan said to me a few minutes later. "That collision said it all. You both understood absolutely. And that's all you
need to do. If you can just make somebody feel that and know it the way you knew it…."
And so… th-th-that's all folks. Now I am going to put these
three insights together and see if they fit into some kind of
consistent view of poetry. But I'm not going to write this part, I'm just going to think about it. Maybe soon I will have
something to say about French poetry, la poésie,
which I have been reading a bit of lately. In the meantime, I'm going to
telephone Eddie. I haven't seen him in a while.
One day later: Fourth bit of advice: Work at it. Read study write.
Do not underestimate
what people who have done great things have put into their work. Have you written "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" yet?
Or "Sunday Morning" or "Howl" or "Brooklyn Bridge"? Locally, wherever we live, we all know about poetic infighting and
jealousies; but one thing must be admitted about those with the awards and the books published: They've done the work.
In summary: Write beautiful, engaging verse; don't let anybody
steer you wrong; polish your lines; send to jerseyworks.com.