Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Poems that Drive Us Bonkers

Bonnie "Prince" Billy at a show in Dallas / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I’m a professor of poetry, more or less, but sometimes I find myself exhausted by the intense focus that poems demand of me. (Wallace Stevens can be especially exhausting—though well worth the effort.) Naturally, my students tend to get fed up with poetry’s opacity too. Who doesn’t? So I was pleased as Punch to find a short piece in the June issue of Poetry that takes on the topic of tricky poems from the point of view of someone intrigued but frustrated. It’s called “To Hell with Drawers,” and it was written by Will Oldham, the songwriter who goes by the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy and whose bearded visage I remember from movies like Old Joy.

The trouble is, you can’t read the damn thing online. In fact, “To Hell with Drawers” is the only thing from the June issue that the magazine doesn’t allow access to. So I’ll tell you about it.

In his central metaphor, Oldham sets up a contrast with prose: while prose arranges its contents neatly on shelves for inspection, he says, poetry hides them away in drawers. And Oldham doesn’t like drawers, even if he loves what they contain. “There must be shelves,” he writes, “where the contents are visible. When things are hidden in drawers, they do not exist. Prose is shelving.” Come to think of it, this is precisely why many of my students enter my course wary of poetry: they don’t want to have to open all those drawers. Or maybe they’re afraid that they won’t even be able to open them.

Yet I would argue that much of the pleasure of reading poems comes from opening the drawer and sorting out what’s inside of it. A poem that you find bewildering at first can later give you a sense of real satisfaction when you’ve figured out just what it’s up to. Auden knew this. He once explained that he took a workmanlike approach to reading poems, asking himself, “Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?” And really, figuring out what a poem is doing turns out to be a pretty straightforward task, since the poem itself tells you which questions to ask. Why is there a line break here? Why do those words alliterate? Why is this stanza so long and the next one so short? Why is that word used and not another? This pragmatic method is something I try to pass on to my students.

But besides the drawer metaphor, Oldham devotes some space in his piece to comparing poetry and song lyrics. Not surprisingly, given his profession, Oldham prefers words that are set to music:

Someone must be there to guide me through the meaning of things. Lyrics, recorded and sung, have the opportunity to sink long and thoroughly; they can work on and with the subconscious. We have long ago passed the time when poetry is memorized without such an aid, and sitting there on paper a poem makes me feel ignorant and insane.

The feeling he describes is a familiar one, but I really believe it can be overcome by slowly and systematically applying Audenesque pragmatism. The question is, do we even have the patience to get that far anymore? Or do our minds skip off to the next thing before we can begin to concentrate? Oldham writes, “I can read that shit. I can read most verse, but it dissipates so quickly because my stupid modern mind travels so fast to another place that the lines are gone.”

Actually, I think distraction, not poetry, is Oldham’s true subject. The drawer metaphor, the desire for music as a helping hand—both of these are ways of describing the problem of focus. It’s something we’ve all been feeling lately. In 2009, David Ulin, who was then editor of the LA Times book section, wrote that he “was having trouble sitting down to read”:

These days … after spending hours reading e-mails and fielding phone calls in the office, tracking stories across countless websites, I find it difficult to quiet down. I pick up a book and read a paragraph; then my mind wanders and I check my e-mail, drift onto the Internet, pace the house before returning to the page. Or I want to do these things but don't.

So it’s natural that we want someone or something to help us make sense of poems. They’re damn hard! How can we spare the time and energy to read something so difficult? Well, in fact the sheer effort that poems demand of us justifies the work we do as readers, not to mention the aesthetic pleasure we get from them. These days, it pays to think slowly once in a while.

Still, with all this talk of music and melody, Oldham has a point. I don’t think poems need to be set to music, but they should definitely contain their own. What’s the use of a poem without a sonic pattern to catch the ear? Or as the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott put it, “The concept of song has gone out of contemporary poetry for the time being … And all those attributes, like rhyme, complexity, or rigidity of meter, have gone. If music goes out of language, then you are in bad trouble.”

I suppose that’s why I’m drawn to Russian poetry, with its tendency toward traditional formalism. Oldham writes, “Give me a melody … This is what I, a child of the age, need.” I can’t imagine a Russian ever saying such a thing; the music is in the poems. Or it should be.

By the way, it turns out that Oldham (as Bonnie “Prince” Billy) visited Olympia this June when I was elsewhere. He played downtown at Rainy Day Records, did an in-studio performance at KAOS on the Evergreen campus, and sang to the wolves in nearby Tenino. Wish I could have made it. I hear the show ended with a group howl, and even the wolves joined in.

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