I was nervous. I had just been summoned to the Old Naval Hospital. I didn’t know exactly what I’d be told.
They wanted me to serve as the moderator.
For a moment, I wished we were in a still-functioning hospital, because I felt certain I was about to suffer an impostor-syndrome-induced stroke.
Brownlow and Casper seemed to take my alarm for excitement and began drawing up a list of writers to invite for these public conversations.
“What poets would you like to interview?” they asked. Suddenly, the sounds of Washington traffic went silent. The earth stopped rotating around the sun. I reached deep into my graduate school experience and stammered, “Well . . . everybody you’ve mentioned would be wonderful!”
Book critics who know nothing about contemporary poetry learn to live with the terror of exposure. We’re like Cold War spies embedded in enemy territory, waiting for a joke we don’t get or some stray cultural reference that exposes us as frauds.
During my years as an English teacher, camouflage had been easy to come by. I concentrated on 19th-century writers Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and a bit of Edgar Allan Poe. I kept their poetry safely packaged in a crate padded with literary scholarship. But paging through a copy of the New Yorker and seeing a poem by, say, Terrance Hayes left me feeling like a dog trying to use his owner’s iPhone.
With “The Life of a Poet,” this new quarterly series sponsored by the Library of Congress, I’d committed to what felt like an act of guaranteed humiliation: interviewing the most accomplished poets in the country without having the foggiest idea what their poetry meant.
But I discovered that the prospect of public appearance, like hanging, concentrates the mind. If I could not be a poetry expert, I determined that I would at least be well-versed: Before each interview, I read every poem the poet had ever published. When the writer was Brian Turner with two collections, I moved with careful deliberation. When the writer was August Kleinzahler with 13 collections, I freaked out.
In the early years, I can’t claim to have attained a great deal of insight, but a funny thing happened in the crucible of my quarterly terror: I stopped reading poetry like a panicked codebreaker. That is, I stopped demanding that every poem yield its concealed meaning, which I suppose is the legacy of outmoded high school English classes. Instead I just read — often aloud — letting the words flow over me and affect me however they could.
That might sound too woo-woo, too undisciplined to crack the sophisticated surface of a modern poem, but I found it takes a lot more discipline to withhold one’s judgment, to muzzle one’s consternation and simply let the lines work. As William Carlos Williams said, a poem is a “machine made of words.” So don’t throw sand in its gears.
Gradually poets I’d once considered impenetrable filled me with awe instead of bafflement. Rather than trying to manufacture some strait-laced summary, I followed their twisting ironies and witty observations, learning, as Carl Phillips writes, that
language should be — and
is — flexible,
it recalls, in
this way, morality,
how there’s nothing, it
seems, not to be given
Poets, you see, are not disguising their meanings and hiding their themes. They’re not trying to frustrate us; they’re looking out for us, further and deeper than most of us can. Take advantage of them. As Mary Ruefle writes, “One pair of eyes is simply not enough.”
Poetry is not a more difficult way of saying something; it’s a way of saying something more difficult. It forces us, line by surprising line, to abandon the furrows of our ordinary perspective. That’s one reason I adore Mary Szybist’s mind-blowing poem “The Lushness of It,” which begins:
It’s not that the octopus wouldn’t love you —
not that it wouldn’t reach for you
with each of its tapering arms:
you’d be as good as anyone, I think,
to an octopus.
On March 10 of this year, I interviewed Willie Perdomo, the author of an exuberant new collection called “The Crazy Bunch.” In a piece recalling his early years in Spanish Harlem, Perdomo writes, “Bro, poems were falling from the rooftops, flailing out the windows; sometimes you’d pick up the corner pay phone and a poem would be calling collect.” What a vision of paradise!
That conversation with Perdomo turned out to be the last live public event the Library of Congress sponsored before the coronavirus pandemic shut Washington down. I’ve missed The Life of a Poet series more than I ever could have imagined back on that nervous afternoon when I first went to the Old Naval Hospital.
Over the course of seven years and 24 conversations, I have not attained any particular expertise as a poetry critic, but I’ve garnered something more valuable. I’ve thrown off my apprehension and replaced it with anticipation. In the works of Carmen Giménez Smith, Ross Gay, Frank Bidart, Ada Limón and so many others, I’ve experienced the certainty which passeth all understanding, what Emily Dickinson described when she wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
You don’t have to catch a double dactyl or understand the history of ekphrasis to suffer that exquisite scalping. You just have to be still and let the poem take a swing at you.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
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