Thursday, March 14, 2013

Way Stations : poems 1985-1997

There is nothing so light, fleeting, diaphanous, ephemeral as words, speech.  And nothing so durable.  This paradox lends poetry its character of magic.  In Greek myth, the mother of the muses was Memory, Mnemosyne, which in poetry displays at least two facets.  First, the making of a poem is a work of remembrance (personal, cultural, historical) : the past and its meanings give poetry its content.  Second, the medium of verse is itself preservative : the inherent durability of language is polished and reinforced in the sonic geometry of poetry.

There is something wonderful about ancient texts - the whisper of these undying voices out of long-dead eras, alien cultures.  This is a pretty obvious truism, but I think the quality of lastingness is implicated in the poet's craft and vocation.  In some ways we are working in the shadow of another time-dimension : we write toward the Eternal, while we attempt to sketch "what is past, and passing, and to come."

The tumultuous psychic shock-wave I went through in the 1970s was undoubtedly "overdetermined" (by my previous life and personality).  But clearly the trigger, the catalyst for that interior tsunami was a simple act of reading.  At a certain point in late adolescence, I encountered Shakespeare's Sonnets, and I read the Bible.   And then I had a nervous breakdown (see previous post here).  A better term for the experience, however, might be nervous breakthrough.  Sometimes psychic walls have to crumble in order for new life to arrive.

The book Way Stations provides a partial record of my second life in poetry - a sort of "middle period" : after the psychic break, and before the era of really long "para-epics" (like Stubborn Grew and Lanthanum).  You can see in Way Stations the familiar oscillation between lyric and narrative; you can see me groping toward this element of lastingness in poetry.  Culture at large - along with time & chance - determines the canon of what will last; but poets also have their own private canon, made up of those poems they have written which still feel vital and true. (Read the book online, here.)

Way Stations opens with the briefest, quietest poems I have written - and which I still consider some of my best.  As it goes along, the poems gradually lengthen and expand, as I branch out from the interior space of my (RI) "Ocean State" - back to the Midwest; across to Russia (inspired primarily by Osip Mandelstam); out again to America and the Americas.  Near the end I focus on some traditional forms (ode, pantoum, etc.).  The book closes with the longest poem, "My Byzantium" - maybe a kind of summary of the whole.

Every poet, then, has a personal canon, a private gyroscope for orientation.  And maybe every poet really writes just one long song, with variations.  Some themes and images recur over and over, like motifs.  One of my earliest poems, from the late 60s, a very brief thing called "The Well is Always There", opens with an extended epigraph from Horizon magazine : a description of an ancient ruin, a Byzantine church in Turkey, whose broken walls "lean toward the Soviet Union".  In some ways I think this little poem encapsulated themes of my work which lay far in the future.  For me, it's about endurance.

Way Stations ebook @ Lulu

Way Stations pbk @ Lulu