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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Lightning

When I first decided to be a poet, I was 11 and we had to write a poem in school. At that moment I decided to be a poet, without really understanding anything of what that entailed. I suppose my first idea was that a poet wrote poems for other people who needed them but did not know how to write poems themselves. Maybe a kind of Cyrano idea of poetry? (I didn't know that story then.)

Anyway, I got some books about poetry, and a few poems struck me, like Wallace Stevens' "Disillusionment at 10 O'Clock." I still think a poem has to be that same thing, a poem that grabs you somehow. I still feel it in the Cummings poems I used to like, and still do to some extent. It is in Vallejo, like "A veces doyme contra todas las contras." Or Ceravolo: "like cellophane tape / on a schoolbook." Let's call it electricity. A poem without it is worthless.

There are two ways of disagreeing with me about this (at least two). You could disagree about what poems have lightning, and how much lightning they have. Or you could disagree with me that this is even a meaningful way of talking about the problem. The first form of disagreement is not troubling to me, because we expect individual differences of response. I am shocked when someone doesn't respond to Vallejo like this, and often doubt whether the person has any feeling for poetry at all. But after I calm down I just chalk it up to individual differences. The second kind of disagreement is more crucial, because then I don't understand the point of studying or reading poetry at all. The rest of poetry, aside from the electricity in it, is a dull and worthless thing.

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