Poetry, as Stanley Kunitz said, is a discipline. But when 12 of America's most celebrated poets have lunch together at the Library of Congress, is it a disciplined occasion? No, it is a lunch like any other lunch.
Yesterday's meeting of past and present consultants in poetry, ranging from William Stafford in his poetic corduroys to James Dickey in a black suit with watches on both wrists, covered more ground than a hound dog in a wet pasture. It went something like this:
"Some people see a poetry renaissance today," said William Jay Smith, consultant in 1968-70. "Some see this as a bad period when criticism is at a low level."
He's the man who once asked a friend to name something "which serves no useful purpose and for which no one will pay anything." The friend instantly replied. "Poetry." What Smith was quoting was the Internal Revenue Service definition of garbage.
"But it's been discovered," he added, "that garbage, if properly treated, may prove to be an important source of fuel, for which society is prepared to pay outrageous prices . . . a fresh and vigorous weed, always renewed and renewing, it will cut its wondrous way through rubbish and rubble."
All morning they batted around such questions as: Should there be more than one consultant at a time? Should non-Americans be allowed? Should the post be more organized, or less?
Howard Nemerov ('63-'64) summed it up as "expressing the winter of our discontent." Incumbent Robert Hayden, whose second one-year term ends this spring, wanted to know if there couldn't be some sort of apparatus to help the consultants get their various projects moving, just as he had in fact managed to organize the lunch and poetry reading. And Dickey ('66-'68) did his imitation of Marlon Brando, no one was quite sure why.
For instance, as Stephen Spender ('65-'66) pointed out, he had tried to set up an international conference of poets here in his term, but it didn't happen until Smith's term. "And all the time I thought it was my idea," Smith said, snapping his fingers.
Reluctantly shrugging on the mantle of "senior consultant," Richard Eberhart ('59-'61) launched into the famous story of the rather inconclusive confrontation between Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost.
Frost, waspish as usual, said Sandburg needed to comb his hair and made some remark about "Slobs of the Sunburnt West," but instead of retorting "Slabs, Robert, Slabs," Sandburg affably suggested that Frost comb his hair too. Somehow the encounter failed to evoke memories of Whistler and Wilde.
Frost always was a better promotor than Sandburg. Everyone recalls his line about free verse being like playing tennis with the net down, but not many realize that Sandburg, the target, got off a pretty sharp comeback. "Yes, Robert, and some people your age can't even play tennis with the net down."
Well, that was lunch. Afterward there was a press conference.
Someone asked about verse drama. "The theater used to be our great medium for language," said Stanley Kunitz ('74-'76), "but gradually it's been displaced by props and the demand for sensationalism of one sort or another."
On that note, Eberhart asserted that "verse drama is inimical to the sirit of America - we're too prosaic, too electronically controlled . . ." And Josephine Jacobsen ('71-'73), one of only four women who have served in the program's 42 years, noted that "nobody listens today, though we talk of our oral traditions and though readings have become so popular."
Someone who knows said that poets are as different as fingerprints, but there was one glittering moment of unanimity: when the group was asked, "Why are people afraid of poetry?"
"Who's afraid?" snapped Daniel Hoffman ('73-'74).
"Poetry is a discipline, an art form, not a spontaneous overflow of your immediate feelings," said Kunitz. "It doesn't depend on a big audience. We're not competing with punk rock. It's essentially a rather secret and intimate art."
And Reed Whittemore ('64-'65) spoke of the need to concentrate, a need which seems grossly neglected in this country at this time.
Later Karl Shapiro ('46-'47) found time to talk about something that concerns most poets so profoundly that they almost can't talk about it: the thing that is happening to our language today.
"Communication has gone crazy," he said. "Poetry has become a public art. But that's not necessarily a good thing. This is a time of brutalized sensibilities - noise - and there are few left who still are sensitive to refinements of sound. What's happening is that we're seeing the quiet withdrawal of real artists into their craft."
Even this is hard to accomplish, he added, in a society so hyped up that even a poet as private and obscure as John Ashbery can become popular, virtually a best-seller.
"With so much accessibility, poetry was bound to become a mass art," he said. "Actually, the concern we have isn't that so much as illiteracy. It's a national scandal. It's frightening. And politically dangerous, that we have become a people who can't express themselves, can't speak their own language.
"The crisis is not in poetry, it's in prose. If we can teach people to understand the language, then we're back in business. We have to start all over, teaching the language."
Maybe teaching English wasn't exactly what Archer M. Huntington had in mind when he funded the consultantship in 1936, but perhaps he suspected that it would be a good idea to have one of those subversives we call poets living here in Washington, in the heart of the establishment, the belly of the beast, to sound the alarm in just such a crisis.