Tuesday, January 25, 2011
CHARLES JOHNSON TALKS ABOUT POETRY
I am a long-time lover of great poetry. In college when I was an undergraduate, I memorized many of my favorite poems. Today I enjoy reciting them whole cloth from my head when I have to do a microphone test before a taped interview or reading. My wife and I first met when we both were 20-years-old, and during that first year of dating, we'd read and discuss poems from Langston Hughes to Amiri Baraka to Gwendolyn Brooks (and all the Chicago poets of the 60s). I even wrote 80 poems of my own (and in 1972 made up one for the Swamp Woman to sing in Faith and the Good Thing), but they were bad, clumsy, amateurish poems. They made me realize that I'm basically a prose person (fiction, literary journalism, essays, philosophy, screen-and-teleplay writing, storytelling). Just as one must instinctively feel from within the structure or narrative forms that will turn raw experience into a well-made story, so too, one must have what I call a particular "cognitive style" that one cultivates over a lifetime, and must immerse himself (or herself) in the theory and practice of great poetry worldwide in order to experience life in ways that lead to writing good poetry. Many of my friends and colleagues have done just that for many decades: Heather McHugh, Richard Kenny, Linda Bierds (all three of these poets in our creative writing program are MacArthur fellows), Ethelbert Miller, Shayla Hawkins, James Bertolino.
So I've lived my entire life as a passionate admirer of poetry and its power to refine and elevate language to new levels of performance, to help us see things with greater granularity of detail (Gerard Manley Hopkins's notion of inscape or a thing's individual essence), and radically transform our perception, as Martin Heidegger explains so well in On The Way to Language, and Poetry, Language, Thought. Remember: I was fiction editor for The Seattle Review for 20 years (1978-98), and my late colleague Nelson Bentley, one of the architects of northwest poetry (along with David Wagoner and their mentor Theodore Roethke, who started creative writing classes at UW right after World War II) was poetry editor.
Therefore, I regularly consumed a diet of his poetry selections (more than 1,000 of his students went on to become published poets, among them Tess Gallagher) with each issue. And, obviously, I work as hard as I can for lyricism in my novels and stories, i.e., poetic prose. I have many books on the "how" of writing poetry. Perhaps now that I'm retired from teaching, I can try to revisit poetry as a form of expression. Doing that, I think, would be rewarding.
I once served very briefly on the board for Copper Canyon Press; I have a full bookshelf of their publications and read them when I want to relax from the utilitarian transparency of prose and hunger for poetry's density, compression, and opacity. Last year I made a promise to myself to read a few poems every night before I go to bed. I think fine poetry is all around us, wherever we encounter the coalescence of thought and feeling compressed into powerful, original expression----in song lyrics, hiaku (Richard Wright discovered that form and wrote a ream of hiaku), novels like Djuna Barnes's Nightwood and Jean Toomer's Cane, Zen writings (see Dogen), a pithy observation on a T-shirt or a greeting card, everywhere that language suddenly and unexpectedly lifts us above the banality of speech and writing overheard in the supermarket or at the DMV or encountered in government documents.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 2:54 AM