Thursday, February 28, 2019

David Wojahn says

To grow as a poet, you have to read in a wide array of aesthetics and styles. David Antin says somewhere that poets suffer when they aren’t willing to widen their “discourse radius.” I like that term.

I write far fewer poems than I did when I was in my twenties or thirties, but I find myself more or less satisfied with a greater percentage of the ones I do write. And the poems take longer to gel. The notebooks where I jot down ideas tend to be filled with lots of fragments, and lists of possible topics for poems (and I mean topics.) But I use the notebooks mostly as a kind of commonplace book. I jot down passages from books I read -- if it’s a passage that intrigues me enough, I have to see how it looks in my own hand. I tend to read more history, nonfiction, science, biography and various oddball stuff than I read poetry, and the purpose of doing this is sometimes merely to preserve special and eccentric facts that intrigue me -- I read the other day that Vermeer’s widow had to give two of his most accomplished paintings to the family baker, who’d given the Vermeers bread on credit for many years, and was finally calling in the debt. There has to be a poem in that. The trick is to find some other motif or subject to juxtapose with it.… A poem of mine [is] initially about some glorious and sad photos that were taken of the last known ivory-billed woodpecker. Yet just describing those images wasn’t enough to make a poem. But suddenly the poem took a turn and began talking about the Delta and Chicago blues, and a particular bluesman, Sonny Boy Williamson. The poem became a meditation on extinction in a larger sense -- as a musical form, the blues is majestic, but its audience keeps dwindling and no one presently seems to be meaningfully extending or developing the form. The blues are an   endangered species veering toward extinction too, which I find immensely sad. It’s the meeting of these two subjects which gave me the chance to finish a draft of the poem, and gave me a challenge for revising it, since the two subjects had to meld and commingle linguistically, not just be juxtaposed with one another. This is also a way of saying that I pay much more attention to the form and the music of the poem than I did when I was younger.

1 comment:

  1. Extinction Event:
    A Cache of Photos of the Last Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
    after J. T. Tanner & Rice Miller

    The feet, gladiator tridents, creeping up the sleeve of J.J. Kugh,
    who stands implacably still.
    Adolescent, fearless, feathers a-bristle, he can afford to be clownish,
    ascending the summit of Kugh's
    tattered deerstalker. & there he perches, a guffawing Mohawk-ed Buddha,
    bill elongate and a-gleam,

    a dazzling cigarette boat from the pleasure fleet of William Randolph Hearst,
    his only feature suggesting elegance.
    Feathers mottled, the red crest lost to Tanner's black & white Brownie,
    eyes cartoonishly bulging. Now up Kugh's
    left shoulder, now to the back, slow crawl up the chest, where he pauses
    to peck the buttons of Kugh's macintosh.

    Four thousand miles eastward, Neville Chamberlain sips tea with the Fuhrer,
    their treaty & a fountain pen
    between them, Earl Grey spilling over to the saucer as it trembles in
    the P.M.'s hands. But here,
    the auguries of apocalypse are small in scale. Tanner sets the Brownie
    & his light meter on a stump

    & fumbles as he bands the bird's right leg,just above the starburst claw
    & thus the feathered thing
    is also christened. He is Sonny Boy. His name is Sonny Boy.
    & Sonny Boy lifts off
    to be sighted once again by Tanner two years later, a treetop above
    a Louisiana swamp. The auguries

    of apocalypse. For instance, the Delta & Chicago Blues, their steady
    chug & boogie toward extinction.
    On a stool on the stage of a club in Edmonton, Alberta, 1964,
    sits the aging Rice Miller,
    a hulking human bomb, 6'4". Stage name: Sonny Boy Williamson,
    harp raised to his lips, fingers quicksilver:

    Ain't got but one way out, babe, an' I jus' can't find the door, sweat
    & slaver nimbusing the hieratic head.
    He sports a derby, purchased in London on his tour with the Yardbirds
    & he loves his woman so hard
    the lights don't burn bright no more. Later that night, it is bourbon
    with Levon Helm & his Hawks,

    before Dylan, before their transformation to The Band. I would like
    to say they are making music, but instead
    Sonny Boy pours another, spitting blood into a second cup—
    scarcely a year to live.
    Who will know him in a century? In two? Whose pulse will quicken,
    hair on the nape of the neck

    raised in awe & supplication as he growls of his beloved
    bringing eyesight to the blind?
    O it's nine below zero an' she done put me down for another man.
    The caterwauling harp,
    the amplified metallic slink. It paws the ground, baying at the moon.
    It flies alone, it has no offspring.

    It calls to its mate, who is carcass & hollow picked bone.
    Glorious this last transmission,
    the flight in mad careening circles, alighting above the muck & ooze
    onto a lightning-blasted live oak,
    clawing up the mottled bark. & now the fervid spondees
    of his cry, of his here-I-am.

    Sonny Boy, Sonny Boy, Sonny Boy, Sonny Boy.

    -- David Wojahn


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