Monday, July 03, 2006

Background Noise #6

Artist/Album: The Doors/The Best Of...
Drink: Mad Fish Shiraz 2003

NOTE: First, let me apologize for the late posting of this installment of Background Noise. With my mother-in-law being in town for a week, and us undertaking the considerable job of packing and sorting and labeling for the impending move to our new house, and the intermittent outages of internet I've been experiencing recently, I just haven't had the time to devote to this week's installment. But, that being said, I finally stole a few moments to churn out some words, the result of which is below. It's a short missive, and I apologize, but I think it is no less important despite its length.

I've been thinking lately about our role as poets in this world – due in part to the wonderfully prescient and thought-provoking posts by our host, the venerable high priest of The Church of the Black Pearl, Christopher Cunningham, and due in part to my attempts at understanding why it is we do whatever it is that we do.

William Carlos Williams wrote, "It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably everyday for lack of what is found there."
This quote is obviously a bit of literary hyperbole, but the point is profound. This point is what I am writing about today. Why do men die everyday for lack of what is found in a poem? Why do they die miserably? What is actually found in a poem, or what should be found there? All of these questions are essentially unanswerable, or if answerable, can only be answered by each person, individually and personally. Another question that comes to mind is: If poems weren't lacking – in whatever way they are lacking – would this prevent these miserable deaths? My thoughts are yes, which, then, makes poetry the most important of the aesthetic disciplines.

But, since poetry is so damn important, isn't it imperative that the poet take his craft seriously? Of course, the answer is yes. The onus is on the poet to provide the cosmos with something it is lacking; with something of quality; with something vital and necessary and honest; with something embodying humanity, or the poet, or both. We, as artists, owe it to our readers (present and future) and to ourselves, to create the very best art we can. Just because we can bang out a few slapdash poems that might get picked up by a minor journal doesn't mean we have to. We owe it to humanity to leave them with a poem that is nothing less than perfect, in the sense that "perfect" is "to the best of our capabilities."

What good is it to manufacture as many mediocre poems as we can, without regard to quality? None whatsoever.
Like a carpenter or sculptor taking an apprenticeship in his craft and honing it until he is a master, we – as poets – must do the same. We must study those who've come before us, and those who are our contemporaries. We must read across all genres of literature, stay up-to-date in current events, yearn for ever-larger vocabularies with which to describe the world thus allowing our poems to explode across the page. We must look at what we do in much the same way a painter looks upon their work: each color, the right perspective, the right composition, each stroke is key to a successful piece. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The greatest paintings are complete and perfect in each of the above ways. The greatest poems, likewise, are complete and perfect in their brilliant choice of words, cadence, rhythm, subject matter, and pacing.

People don't read poetry to get the news of the day. They don't read poetry for instructions on how to live. They don't read poetry for excitement or as a diversion. People read poetry for understanding into the greater, unanswerable questions that haunt the cavities of our souls. They read poetry to gain insight into the common, yet flawed, psyche of mankind. They read poetry because every single human being is born incomplete, with something vital missing, and only poetry can fill that void.
Which brings me back to William Carlos Williams' quote. Don't let your readers down, dear poet. Aspire to successfully fill that void. Aspire to prevent the miserable deaths that Williams alludes to in his quote. Aspire to be the best craftsman you can be. The rest will work itself out.


Blogger Luis said...

Well said, Justin, we should all strive to do the best we can with the word.

4:41 AM  
Anonymous Glenn said...

It is as Phillip Levine once said: "ALL poems are political."

7:05 AM  
Blogger j.b said...

thanks, Luis.
i think it's important to work at our craft. to take it seriously, and honor it by doing it the best we possibly can.

that's a true quote by Levine. i would even widen to say "Everything is political."

3:48 PM  
Blogger Luis said...

Luis Omar Salinas, one of my favorite poets, had studied with Levine in Fresno, and have read together.

check out Luis Omar Salinas
section @ the bottom of the link there's a photograph of one of their readings.

6:10 PM  
Blogger j.b said...

Salinas was the guy you visited while he was sick, right?

you sent me some of his poems then. they were good. we're all connected in a way, aren't we? screw 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon, we're living the 6 degrees of poetry.

7:50 PM  
Blogger c. allen rearick said...

great choice j.b. i've always loved that quote by WCW.

8:50 AM  
Blogger j.b said...

thanks. i just came across it for the first time the other day and it struck me as so important, so profound.

we, as practitioners of poetry, MUST be sure to give mankind our best in each and every one of our poems. just as mankind MUST give us their undivided attention when reading each and every one of our poems.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous MOM C said...

I must say J.B. that what I've read from My Favorite Poet and his favorite poets have done exactly what you said should be done - to give us readers "understanding into the greater, unanswerable questions that haunt the cavities of our souls." Poetry I read in school never did anything like that for me. You and yours have made a poetry reader out of me because I can relate to what you say and make it my own and I thank you from the bottom of my HEART and SOUL.

11:30 AM  
Blogger j.b said...

mom c-
thank you so much. this is something Your Favorite Poet and i (and i'm he and others) have talked about before; that if only everyone else could read our words, remove themselves from the TVs or spy novels or whatever and give us a chance.

we are not your father's poets.

i appreciate your kind comments, as i'm sure we all do. we try, we work at it, we care about it, and we (above all) just want to lay bare the truth and beauty of our surroundings. i'm gladdened to know that (on occasion) have succeeded.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Luis said...


Yes, I visited Salinas then.
Last year he invited me for his birthday, which I attended with one of my friend's from California & a friend we made in Fresno on our first trip. Salinas asked me to read a couple of poems from Raw Materials. I've always been anti-reading in public, but how could I say no to Salinas, it was his birthday & he asked me to read, so I did. I read Asimilacion, the first poem in Raw Materials & In the House of the Butterflies, the last poem in the book. I was nervous, but did okay. Salinas has a new book out, Elegy of Desire, which I hear is very good. I read a few of the poems before the book came out, but don't have a copy yet.

2:47 AM  
Blogger j.b said...

that's great. i LOVE the poem Asimilacion, and i remember telling you that when i first received Raw Materials. helluva poem. i wish you'd write more about your childhood and such.

good for you for reading, too. i think i might be doing a future Background Noise on the merits of reading, etc.

i should pick up the new Salinas book. any ideas how someone from Salt Lake can go about getting a copy, Luis?

10:10 AM  
Blogger Luis said...

The book is available from University of Arizona Press.

quote from the site:

The most difficult poems to write
Are those of love and those of death.
I’m half in love and half dead.
It stands to reason that I’ve come upon a difficult task. Despite his disclaimer, it seems no difficult task at all. One of the pioneers of Chicano poetry and a highly esteemed artist in the Mexican American community, Luis Omar Salinas is a poet with Tex-Mex bordertown roots whose work is studied at the Sorbonne. Beginning with his legendary first book, Crazy Gypsy, he has been a major figure not only in Chicano literature but in all of American poetry—both a poet of the people and a voice for other poets. In Elegy for Desire, Salinas has crafted visionary poems about growing older and looking back on a rich life of poetry. In this quiet yet hallucinatory volume, Salinas offers us a prismatic collection of odes, elegies, and cantos of desire—complex poems about our place in the world. Poems to be savored in solitude, or better still with an intimate companion. Few poets, Latino or otherwise, are as daring with love poetry that is so honestly fierce. Salinas gives us a meditation on gently aging while continuing to celebrate personal experience that draws upon the world. One need only sample these rich, elegant stanzas to recognize the wealth of wisdom found in their words. Elegy for Desire is a testament to a singular talent that has survived for decades . . . and will continue to inspire long beyond his lifetime. The dead can’t complain, and lovers always do.
Well, I’m here, and that is important.
And if life can be as exciting as this,
I must be doing something right.

10:04 PM  

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