I’ve noodled over it for days with the intention, as always, to offer something interesting, provocative, insightful, and/or unusual. But, as Edith Grossman‘s Cervantes puts it in his Prologue to Don Quixote, “Idle reader: Without my swearing to it, you can believe that I should like this book, the child of my understanding, to be the most beautiful, the most brilliant, and most discreet that anyone could imagine. But I have not been able to contravene the natural order; in it, like begets like.” If anything is clear to me it’s that there is no escaping one’s nature or one’s historical moment, so we’d better not pretend to initial-cap notions such as Truth, Beauty, Poetry, The Reader, etc.
So why bother to blog? I can speak, of course, only for myself. When I launched The Perpetual Bird in October 2006, I thought of it as a way of creating community: what my Oxford dictionary calls “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” But I quickly saw that the feeling of fellowship this blog has given me has little to do with those shared qualities. Instead, this little community has generally respected differences in attitude, generously pushed for expanding areas of interest, and helped to redefine my own goals as a writer and a person.
I’ve bothered to blog for the same reasons that one converses with family members at Thanksgiving, falling sometimes into dispute and other times into surprising agreement. Such conversation risks hurt feelings, baffled stares, a hardening of views, but when it occurs on the ground of mutual respect and affection, it can just as well heal, illuminate, and open up new ways of thinking. I’ve seen all these changes happen here, in myself and others.
Of course, the is the broader situation to consider. I’ve been reading David Dalton’s new biography of Bob Dylan, Who Is that Man?, and for some reason, really for the first time, it hit me that the cultural success of artful songwriters (Dylan chief among them) has resulted in the cultural marginalization of “paper poets,” including me and many of the poets who read this blog. Most American poets have responded to this cultural shift by denigrating or denying it—taking either an elitist stance or a stance that claims vast significance for works addressed to a vanishingly small, theory-obsessed audience. The explosion of Creative Writing programs springs from and thrives because of these two tendencies. Not to diss such programs: I have an MFA myself and teach Creative Writing off and on.
So what is the point? I come back to the idea of community. Our particular community, the one that has coalesced around this blog and others like it, consists of people who aren’t especially swayed by numbers. We may regret that millions don’t share our enthusiasms, but in our hearts we know it doesn’t matter. This is because real poets write for the same reason that Bob Dylan left Hibbing, Minnesota for New York City: he couldn’t help himself. What if he’d appeared ten years earlier? Or ten years later? Success would probably have eluded him altogether or at least been delayed by a decade or more.
Perpetual Birders, I imagine, know that we are living in a historical moment—call it the Twilight of Capitalism—in which numbers talk and words balk. We recognize and lament the situation, but we know it has very little to do with our own thoughts and feelings, with the great pleasure we draw from diminished things, poetry chief among them. This knowledge isn’t new, of course. Robert Frost felt the same sense of marginalization back in 1916, when he included “The Oven Bird” in his collection Mountain Interval*:
There is a singer everyone has heard,Frost is widely read now, of course, and while predictions of this kind are useless, I’m sure he’ll be widely read in a hundred or two hundred years. But I’m slipping into numbers when what I mean to emphasize is the reason for Frost’s durability. It derives not from his popularity in 1916* but from the abiding ability of his poetry to please, enthrall, excite, and illuminate.
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
This is what we’re all writing to achieve, isn’t it? It’s a story no numbers can tell, a value the shifting market for culture can’t fundamentally affect. Still, it’s good to have our small group of far-flung friends to buoy us up when we feel completely swept away on the tide. Even a small boat is better than none!
All the Fruit . . .Steady as she goes, fellow Birders. Steady as she goes in the new year!
by Friedrich Hölderlin (tr. Robert Bly)
All the fruit is ripe, plunged in fire, cooked,
And they have passed their test on earth, and one law is this:
That everything curls inward, like snakes,
Prophetic, dreaming on
The hills of heaven. And many things
Have to stay on the shoulders like a load
Of failure. However the roads
Are bad. For the chained elements,
Like horses, are going off to the side,
And the old
Laws of the earth. And a longing
For disintegration constantly comes. Many things however
Have to stay on the shoulders. Steadiness is essential.
Forwards, however, or backwards we will
Not look. Let us learn to live swaying
As in a rocking boat on the sea.**
|Image by illustrator and printmaker Lorna Cox|
* The book was revised and reissued in 1920.
** After finishing this post I decided to revisit my first real post (“real” because the actual first post merely explained why I’d given the blog its name), dated October 25, 2006. It concerned Gaston Bachelard‘s Water and Dreams, mentioned Robert Bly, and pondered the small audience for poetry in the U.S. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!