Monday, April 11, 2005

Larry Levis and U2

Cheryl and I went to see U2 on Saturday in San Jose. What a great show! Cheryl has finally converted me into a wholehearted U2 fan, though I have yet to convert her into an opera fan. I do sometimes wonder, though, what toll stadium rock shows take on my hearing, and that's toll in the sense of both bridge tolls and tolling bells, because when we got home I could still hear what I can only describe as ten thousand tiny sleigh bells shaking simultaneously in the distance across a field of snow. I'll also put in a plug for One, the organization to fight global AIDS and poverty which Bono plugged in the show before singing "One."

I guess I'm just constitutionally incapable of forgetting about poetry, though. In the midst of 20,000 people jumping up and down to the music, I was on my feet listening to every decibel but there was still a part of my brain thinking about poetry. And what it was thinking about most was Larry Levis and his dream of Yeats. Levis once gave a talk on elegies and Seamus Heaney that I think was later published in Marlboro Review and was also memorialized in Ellen Bryant Voigt's wonderful poem "What I Remember of Larry's Dream of Yeats."

Levis' talk slowly metamorphoses from a scholarly essay on Heaney into almost a prose poem about Levis' messy apartment in (of all places to encounter Yeats) Salt Lake City, and tells the story of how Yeats comes back to retrieve a poem he'd forgotten: "He went quickly into the kitchen and emerged again with the work in his hand, and passing by me glanced at the new edition of his poems, the most complete and scholarly one available, open to a place where I had made a note in the margin, and he paused slightly and then said, 'What are you reading that for?' and looking straight at me said, 'Passion is the only thing that matters in poetry. As a matter of fact, it's the only thing that matters in life.'"

Anyway, that's what I was thinking of in the middle of 120 decibels of "Where the Streets Have No Name," how a poem can be about weeds on a driveway or Julius Caesar or the Iraq War or your sister washing her hair, as long as it has passion. Yes, I know this is very simplistic. I could argue against it myself, but it really is what I believe is true about poetry, going all the way back to Sappho (as translated by Anne Carson):

Eros shook my
mind like a mountain wind falling on oak trees

2 comments:

Diane K. Martin said...

"Anyway, that's what I was thinking of in the middle of 120 decibels of 'Where the Streets Have No Name,' how a poem can be about weeds on a driveway or Julius Caesar or the Iraq War or your sister washing her hair, as long as it has passion."

Yes, it must have the passion, but it must have the ability to transmit the passion to the reader. I'm not sure if the writer feeling passionate is enough.

But actually, though I think one can't exactly disagree with you, there are good poems that play or provoke or otherwise work on a level other than passion, and these poems are not necessarily bad, though may be less important in the long range. Isn't this so?

Robert said...

Hi, Diane, of course I think you're right that the writer feeling passionate is not enough. I guess I'm making all sorts of assumptions: assume that you've got two poems written at an equally high level of imagination, craft, rhythm, originality, music, etc.--THEN what makes the difference between the memorable and the forgettable poem?

And I love, for example, James Richardson's aphorisms ("Those who demand consideration for their sacrifices were making investments, not sacrifices") that might not seem passionate but show a sort of passionate quest for self-knowledge. Still, maybe it's my taste for melodrama, but I'd probably like the poem more if I really felt that Richardson was on the point of clawing his eyes out Oedipus-like ("Aaagh, I never made a real sacrifice, only an investment!")