Saturday, October 29, 2011

Of Poets...

I arrive 25 minutes early for the first "Discussion on Contemporary Poetry." I see myself in this place and do not feel foreign. It is one of the many halls at New York University, this one in the School of Law, but at the moment it is filled with poets, and while such a gathering inevitably reveals the pretentiousness of our kind, it also reveals our love. Of beauty, of language, of meaning. We experience the world differently, I think, not only from those who do not identify themselves with this art, but also from each other.

A lineup of 14 Chancellors of the Academy last night, all reading from their recent work, spoke to this directly. Of their readings, three, for me, were deeply felt. Three more deeply appreciated, and at least two barely enjoyed. That is as received through my sensibility. The filter of my poetic ear, such as it is. I reflect for some time that this range exists for them, as well, toward their myriad colleagues, but always in common, always this: a profound reverence for the bard in each of them. For the poet's heart in every one, for the yearning and inevitability of their language, for the shared ecstasy of a satisfying turn of phrase. A human cry perfectly rendered. A love song that drapes the body like a shroud.

Across the board, the vanity of such types was highlighted--how we assume that people want to read our deepest, most hidden selves. See us close up and beneath an unforgiving light. And yet, how endearing to be so willing to be naked before our readers, cold and chicken-skinned, skinny and alone. How intrepid, how admirable.

The topic of the discussion is "Risk in Poems," and Komunyakaa talks from his wing-backed chair about the first risk being to call oneself a poet, and Marilyn Hacker takes it back even further, placing the "first" risk in the act of "taking up the pen." But it is Komunyakaa's point that echoes the sensation I had earlier in the day when I was standing in a group of 10 or 12, awaiting our Walking Tour of the West Village where the formidable enchantment of the artist's life and the city itself had sent many a poet (by way of the White Horse Tavern and other such haunts) to their deaths at St. Vincent's Hospital, now closed and haunted itself by more than a handful of American lyricists.

When our 'guide' asked us how many of us were poets ourselves, I was surprised to see how many hands caught half way up, hovered feebly at ear level and either came back down or rose from there like sidling flags, limping into the air. The risk was great, and it occurred to me that by shooting my hand toward the sky (after the requisite pause midway) I was opening myself up to questions to which I might have to respond, "Yes, well, I don't actually have a full-length collection of poems that is published, but I...have a chapbook that was published....yes, well it was seven years ago and....I do have a couple dozen individual poems published in literary journals here and abroad, but I...well, my manuscript is complete, I don't know why I haven't sent it out, I--" Ugh.

I threw my hand up anyway. What the hell, I thought. I am a poet. For all that it entails. A poet indeed. It's the way I love, the way I speak and write and read the world. It's what I am in all of the egocentricity and yes, ingratiating self-exposure that the moniker denotes. I am a poet, and the written word was my first love. I admit it.

And after all, as we began to move en masse down Hudson Street, an ungainly mix of writer types (you know, berets, reading glasses, writing pads and pencils in hand), I was safe in my claim; no one even asked.

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