The two musicians pour forth their souls abroad
in such an ecstasy as to charm the audience
like none I've ever seen before, and when
Poetry does make things happen. A friend says, "I wanted
to let you know that my stepfather is chattering like
a schoolboy about a poem of yours on my Facebook page.
This may not seem like much to you, but this guy has been
I have met them in dark alleys, limping and one-armed;
I have seen them playing cards under a single light-bulb
and tried to join in, but they refused me rudely,
knowing I would only let them win.
I have seen them in the foyers of theaters,
coming back late from the interval
long after the others have taken their seats,
and in deserted shopping malls late at night,
peering at things they can never buy,
and I have found them wandering
in a wood where I too have wandered.
This morning I caught one;
small and stupid, too slow to get away,
it was only a promise I had made to myself once
and then forgot, but it screamed and kicked at me
and ran to join the others, who looked at me with reproach
in their long, sad faces.
When I drew near them, they scurried away,
even though they will sleep in my yard tonight.
I hate them for their ingratitude,
I who have kept countless promises,
as dead now as Shakespeare's children.
"You bastards," I scream,
"you have to love me—I gave you life!"
Asked if it isn't weird to be at an awards ceremony with Gregory Peck,
Dylan says, "Well, listen, everything's weird. You tell me something
that's not weird." He might as well have said "big," that his songs are
a witness to magnitude, that your poems are. And why shouldn't they be?
Look at the epic of your life, at the people in it, all heroic. And to think
it began with an accident. Somebody looked up at the night sky and saw a star,
somebody in Cracow or Belgrade, maybe, or the city where you live now.
Carbon, nitrogen . . . there was an explosion, and now you have to pay attention
to everything. At the party, everyone was talking about the crappy TV series
that's so popular, and you didn't say you wanted better, wanted more.
That same night, you met the man you'd love so hard it made your teeth hurt.
He said, "Hey, baby," and you snapped, "I'm not your baby."
I have nothing to say to you, really. I just want to see what I'm looking at.
I want so much not to listen to you after all this time but to hear.
I'm bouncing across the Scottish heath in a rented Morris Minor
and listening to an interview with Rat Scabies, drummer
of the first punk band, The Damned, and Mr. Scabies,
who's probably 50 or so and living comfortably on royalties,
is as recalcitrant as ever, as full of despair and self-loathing,
but the interviewer won't have it, and he keeps calling him "Rattie,'
saying, "Ah, Rattie, it's all a bit of a put-on, isn't it?"
and "Ah, you're just pulling the old leg now, aren't you, Rattie?"
to which Mr. Scabies keeps saying things like
"We're fooked, ya daft prat. Oh, yeah, absolutely—fooked!"
Funny old Rattie—he believed in nothing, which is something.
If it weren't for summat, there'd be naught, as they say
in that part of the world. I wonder if his dad wasn't a bit of a bastard,
didn't drink himself to death, say, as opposed to a dad like mine,
who, though also dead now, was as nice as he could be when he was alive.
A month before, I'd been in Florence and walked by the casa di cura where
my son Will was born 27 years ago, though it's not a hospital
now but a home for the old nuns of Le Suore Minime del Sacra Cuore
who helped to deliver and bathe and care for him when he was just
a few minutes old, and when I look over the gate, I see three
of these holy sisters sitting in the garden there, and I wave at them,
and they wave back, and I wonder if they were on duty
when Will was born, these women who have had no sex at all,
probably not even very much candy, yet who believe in something
that may be nothing, after all, though I love them for giving me my boy.
They're dozing and talking, these mystical brides of Christ,
and thinking about their Husband, and it looks to me
as though they're having their version of the sacra conversazione,
a favorite subject of Renaissance artists in which people who care
for one another are painted chatting together about noble things,
and I'm wondering if, as I walk by later when the shadows are long,
will their white faces be like stars against their black habits,
the three of them a constellation about to rise into the vault
that arches over Tuscany, the fires there now twinkling,
now steadfast in the chambered heart of the sky.
That's what my mother and her sisters used to say
on the porch late at night when they thought I wasn't
listening: He said he had to travel so much because
his job was in sales, but come to find out he had a wife
and a whole other family in Breaux Bridge or he said
he was a captain and got wounded in the war; come to
find out he never rose above private and damn sure
never saw active service, excuse the language.
Come to Find Out meant that something was going
to be revealed and in that way was a cousin to All Is
Not As It Seems and One Thing Led to Another,
which suggests that the second thing reveals or
in some way at least echoes the first. And then there
was What Was I Thinking, the answer to which
was almost always You Weren't, though sometimes
you were: she's not very bright so I'll have my way
with her or he'll stay home and keep house and I'll pay
the bills or who needs health insurance. What'd you
think, those babies were going to feed
themselves and change their own diapers? Oh, if only
life were like the opera, where you can say what
you think about somebody while you're standing
right next to them, yet they don't seem to hear you.
Actually, a better verb is "sing": apparently you can
mouth the most wounding insults and get away without
being slapped or stabbed as long as you dress them
in eighth-note triplets. Art says to us, What do you
want to be true, and then it gives us all these choices:
you can do whatever you like or, if you prefer,
nothing at all. No wonder some people hate it,
though I say, Thank you, art! Thank you, opera, plays,
movies, things you hang on a wall or put on a pedestal!
Thank you, poems of every length, from the Inferno
to a haiku, provided the haiku poet puts as much time
into his or her poem as Dante put into his! Which seems
unlikely, but we're trying to uphold standards here,
right, reader? Thank you, symphony orchestras
and flash mobs—what could be better than going to
your local Walmart to buy a sack of onions, some puppy
biscuits, and a carton of smokes only to be surprised
by a guy pulling a sax out of a box and being joined
by a woman with a bassoon, three string players,
and a twenty-person chorus who launch into "Ode to Joy,"
an 1785 Friedrich Schiller poem that becomes the final
movement of the Ninth Symphony by celebrated German
composer/pianist Ludwig van Beethoven! It's 1796 now,
and come to find out Beethoven's losing his hearing,
possibly from typhus, systemic lupus erythematosus,
or even his habit of immersing his head in cold water
to stay awake. He stops performing, though he continues
to compose. He also avoids conversation. Talk is cheap!
He digs in, though, writes the Fifth Symphony that begins
with the four most famous notes in musical history, notes
that, as he himself said, sound like Fate knocking
at the door. Then another symphony and another
and another still, till he writes the Ninth, the one whose
opening fanfare is said to have put a lump even
in Hitler's throat. Come to find out art works the same
way on everybody; you could be a pirate or a headsman
or the pope or the owner of a dry cleaning establishment
and still laugh as Punch and Judy throw pots and pans
at each other, weep when the soprano sings
of the lover, the land, the mother she'll never see again.
Everybody's got a story, and half the time there's a story
behind the story, and in half of the cases that are like that,
we'll never know what it is. But you can go your whole
day without hearing any music at all, and then you can
talk to or buy a carton of tomatoes from or just pass by
somebody who has; one thing leads to another in this
world, and the next thing you know, you're happy.
Rilke said he wanted a room "with a few old things
and a window opening onto great trees," which makes
me think of my favorite rooms and their furnishings,
an obvious choice being this brightly-lit bedroom,
newspapers and coffee cups on the floor, bedclothes
scattered everywhere, perfumed with the smell
of sex, maybe, or maybe not. And if not, okay;
they've smelled of sex before and will again.
Well, probably. As Fats Waller said, "One never
knows, do one?" Then there's the kitchen with
a pizza in a blazing oven, perhaps, or a risotto
bubbling while you chop salad and blast Big Jack
Johnson on a pair of tinny speakers. Then it's off
to the dining room and Chopin while you eat
your jambalaya or cassoulet or whatever it was
you cooked, and now the living room, a fire
toppling as you sip eau de vie and toy with a cigar
and listen to Penderecki's Symphony no. 3,
the one he wrote for the war dead, the words sung
by soprano Dawn Upshaw, whose voice enters
the music so gradually that you don't realize
someone is singing until she all but cries out in joy
or terror, you're not sure which. Now you're
in the space between image and idea where Keats
spent his happiest hours, skating back and forth
between some old book in your hand
and your memories of other books, of things you did
when you were a kid or even last week and things
other people told you they did, of your mother
and father, lovers you might have
treated better and ones who might have been nicer to you,
friends you broke with even though
you can't remember a single one,
historical figures—silly ones, like Thomas Taylor
the Platonist, who invented a "perpetual lamp" fueled
by oil, salt, and phosphorus that exploded during
his demonstration of it at the Freemasons'
Tavern in 1785 which, he noted ruefully, raised
a prejudice against the device "which could never
afterwards be removed," and merry ones, like
Don Juan of Austria who, just before the battle
of Lepanto, was seized by "a fit of exuberance
beyond rational thought" and danced a galliard
on the gun-platform of the command vessel
to the music of fifes. And all the while you're thinking
of tomorrow and of the things you have to do
and the ones you want to do, and you wonder
if it'd be better to have a list to make sure you don't
forget anything or if it'd be better just to get up
and start working and in that way do the thing you
weren't expecting to do, the one that doesn't
appear on any list or even in your mind as you
were dozing, waking, dozing again, the idea
that enters you like a cry in the night—one minute
you're at a table in a tavern with your friends, it seems,
and the next, you're in the street, saying, Now what?
Josephine Yu invites me to dinner, and when I ask her
what it is so I can bring the right wine, she thinks for
a second and says, "A chicken from Eugene," and when
I say, "Who's Eugene?" she says, "Eugene's not a person
but the town of Eugene, LA, where they stuff chickens
with wild rice and cajun seasonings, though actually
it's a chicken from Maurice," and when I say, "Who's
Maurice?" Josephine Yu says "Maurice is not a person
but a town also," though the business about the wild rice
and cajun seasonings stays the same. Which is fine,
though I like to think of the chicken as coming from
a real man and possibly even a Great Man of the kind
described by the Great Man Theory proposed by
nineteenth-century hotshot Thomas Carlyle, who believed
that history is largely explained through the actions
of great men who exercise their intelligence, charisma, and leadership
skills in a way that changes life forever for
the rest of us who are not so great. Carlyle's argument
was countered by Herbert Spencer, who said that great
men were the product of the societies that produced them
and that their impact wouldn't be possible otherwise, which
pretty much means both guys were right, though Carlyle
was a little more so, since he also believed that it'd be
a good idea to study great men and in that way learn how
to be great ourselves. Sure, if that's your goal. But what
is greatness? "The discovery of a new dish confers more
happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star,"
said French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin a few years
earlier, and that's true as well, if happiness is your goal.
What is the goal? Let's say you don't have one—that's fine
by me. Here's what George Eliot said about top Victorian
fictional non-goalmaker Dorothea Brooke: "The effect
of her being on those around her was incalculably
diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent
on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you
and me as they might have been is half owing to the number
who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs."
There's also a third category of person, and this includes
those who just like to mess about and find that they've
invented stuff they'd never thought about in the first place.
Take two people who have changed the world, Sir Tim
Berners-Lee and Daniel Policarpo. Sir Tim started thinking
about ways to combine hypertext with the internet
and ended up inventing the World Wide Web, whereas
Policarpo dreamed of women with tattoos and Betty Page
haircuts and came up with the roller derby. What have they
done since? I have no idea, though I could probably find
out on Wikipedia. Then again, who cares? Aren't the web
and the roller derby enough? They're enough for me. With
one you can find out how to remove mildew from a leather
jacket or the best time to plant a fall garden, and with the other
you can watch women with names like Susan B. Agony
and Skank Williams race around in circles and beat the crap
out of each other. Life, I love you so much. Thanks to you,
I can do something or nothing, and no matter what I do,
the results are about the same as long as I do a little more
something than nothing in, say, any given two-day period.
Today I'm writing, for example, but this afternoon I might
get in my car and drive down to Wakulla County to look
at the wildlife and then treat myself to a big seafood dinner
with "all the fixins'" washed down with several glasses
of overpriced craft beer. Tomorrow morning, I'll be
too fuzzy-brained to write, but in the afternoon,
I can look at what I've written and decide which parts I need
to cut and which I need to expand or change the day after.
By the end of the week, I'll have a nicely-shaped poem
that'll sit for a day or two before I give it a haircut and send it
off to some lucky editor. So what if my tomb is unvisited?
I expect to be quite content there—happier, even,
if that's possible. It might be better on the other side. Who's to say
otherwise? Or it might be the same: the occasional meal
with our darlings, days of good writing, car trips
when the weather permits, long afternoon naps,
rummaging in the fridge for a cold chicken leg when
we wake, then writing again. How's that sound,
reader? If you're a writer as well, I wish the same for you;
indeed, I wish the same for all writers. And while
I'm sure I wish you a long and happy life and one
absolutely brimming with the sort of pleasant activities I've already
described as well as a number I haven't
thought of because they are more suited to your tastes
and experience than to mine, there's no denying that, the vicissitudes
of existence and our particular genetic makeups
being what they are, it's altogether possible that you might
leave this beautiful world before I do, in which case I imagine
myself walking by the graveyard
at night, barely able to see anything, when suddenly there's
a faint green glow through the iron bars of your mausoleum.
You had a good day at your desk;
you're a little peckish now, and you're looking for leftovers.
Would it have been so bad? Probably they would
have gotten tired of our candy-ass ways
and gone back to Germany—the Mongolians asked
the Bolsheviks for help in 1921, but after the Reds
sent troops to beat back the Chinese, they oppressed
their hosts until they got tired of it and left, meaning
that everybody in Mongolian today is Mongolian again,
not Russian and certainly not Chinese. We'd have
had to speak German for a couple of years, but then
we'd all be bilingual, wouldn't we? We'd be fully
globalized and ready to do business with our new
friends, the Germans. Okay, you'd have to put Hitler
to one side, but isn't that what poetry's for? Kokoschka
was admitted into the same art school the future
Führer applied to, but 'unfortunately Hitler failed
the exam. If I had failed in his place, the world would
have been spared a good deal of misery," said the artist;
"Hitler would have become a bad painter, and I should
have become a reasonable, understanding politician."
Hitler would have ended up giving lessons to schoolkids,
muttering about foreigners in cafés, and showing in
a friend's gallery every few years, if he'd had a friend.
Oh, poetry, why can't you make all this happen?
You're part words, part music; can't you draw a crowd
with your pipes and timbrels and then talk sense
into them? Don't tell Music I said so, but you're better
than it. Hitler's goons listened to Beethoven as they built
their death camps and marched the people into them.
They should have listened to Rossini: when you listen
to Beethoven, says a character in Gravity's Rainbow,
all you want to do is invade Poland, but with Rossini,
the lovers unite, isolation is overcome, walls are breached,
balconies scaled—listen! "The Italian girl is in Algiers,"
he says, "the Barber's in the crockery, the magpie's
stealing everything in sight!" In the midst of greed,
pettiness, and the abuse of power, love occurs;
shit is turned into gold, and the whole world
rushes together. Poetry does that, too, only not in big concert halls.
Poetry, you're a woman reading in a chair by firelight;
you're reading Yeats, how Love paces the mountains
and hides his face amid the stars, and you pause
to put another log on the fire and go back
to your book. Or you're a man in Paris waiting for
the waiter to bring his coffee, or you're two lovers
in a meadow—you're certainly not an auditorium bursting with thugs
in their death's-head uniforms and their brittle
wives. Oh, you remember war: the Iliad is more or less
a training manual for that pastime. But a better poem is the Odyssey
with its wily hero, at once wise and arrogant,
like, well, pretty much everybody. Or the way most of us
think of ourselves, at least. Serb poet Vasko Popa says poetry
is not written by lovesick teenagers but by sly old tricksters.
You go from house to house in every neighborhood, poetry,
from table to table, field to field. You don't say, "Stop killing!"
to the people. You don't say anything, really. When I read
you, I don't want to kill anyone, though I guess someone
could kill me as I weep and chuckle, totally engrossed.
Okay, anonymous assassin, cut it out! Go kill
somebody else! Wait, don't kill anybody. Here, read this poem,
it's by Schiller, Goethe, Heine, Rilke, some little girl
who doesn't even know she's a poet yet. Okay, Astrid
or Gretchen or Dagmar or whatever your name is, let's see
what you've written. Hey, not bad for a kid! Keep it up.