Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Post-Retreat Post (back from Sea Ranch)

This morning, second day back from the retreat at Sea Ranch, where Robert, Beverly, Nancy, David, Zack, Jeanne, Scott, and I spent two days reciting poems by heart, writing, reading, and talking about poetry... yet not entirely back, so reading Robert Hass's Twentieth Century Pleasures on my way in to work on BART (reading it for something like the nineteenth time), trying to stave off reality and bring the poem-making mind with me as close as possible to where the elevator doors would close on me on Market Street. Hass's tone is so intimate, so much on the level with the reader, that it was easy for me to imagine him there with us, talking about poems as we stared out the picture windows at the fuzzy-antlered adolescent deer, the trio of hares in the tall grasses studded with iris, and beyond the meadows to the metallic and un-pacific Pacific beating below the bluffs.

In the first essay, the one on Lowell, Hass says, "I heard, and it was the incantatory power of the poems that moved me. Enchantment, literally," and then not much later, "You can analyze the music of poetry but it's difficult to conduct an argument about its value...." He says a lot more--each paragraph has a phrase I've underlined or checked--and I could fill this post easily with nothing more than quotes from him. But I was thinking about that last statement, and I realized that we constantly try to do that all during the retreat, argue about a poem's value. Is such-and-such a good poem? How would we make it better? Or is it simply trash?

Well, it's fun to, let's say, workshop Elizabeth Bishop when she can't defend herself, and there's nothing wrong with discriminating among poets and poems--if this vintage has a nose of blackberry and chocolate and that one has a nose of wet dog, why can't we do the same with a Dean Young or Gillian Connolly? But you can argue until you're blue in the face if "it's gotten into the blood" or it hasn't. You're not going to change any minds/hearts with close reading.

It bothers me, though, when we descend into typing and prescription. None of us writes in a "school." We write a poem. I don't know about you, but I'm not writing what I wrote yesterday, let alone what I wrote ten years ago. So when someone says, "Poetry is all about XXXX or XXXXX..." or "You can't write that..." I bristle. I know that Eliot's contemporaries condemned his writing. Hell, they did that with Whitman. Man that guy was weird, they thought.

I guess what I'm trying to say is you can't like everything, but it can't hurt to have all different kinds of poetry in this world, fraternizing with each other and cross pollinating and whatnot. You can never tell what will get into your blood, in the long run.

If this is sounding awfully sermon-like for a blog post, forgive me. (Post a comment and let me know what an ass I am.)

What a wonderful weekend it was, maybe, for me, the best retreat ever ('cause man did I need it!), and we've been doing this for maybe eight (more?) years--even if I ate too much and wrote too little, if I never got time to do yoga and didn't get all the way down to the beach. I missed husband and pooch, but it was still wonderful. And by the way, I found my lost copy of Poetry magazine.


Robert said...

Thanks for bringing back good memories of the weekend, Diane, especially those hares--some of them, I swear, were almost as big as the deer!

Sometimes poetry seems like the proverbial elephant with the blind men. One feels the trunk and thinks an elephant is a trunk; another feels a tusk and thinks an elephant is a tusk. People first encounter a particular poem and think, "Ah, poetry is imagination," and when they encounter an "un-imaginative" poem (like, say, one about wheelbarrows and chickens), they don't recognize it as poetry. Or they first encounter a poem about a red wheelbarrow in the rain and think, "Ah, poetry is vivid imagery, like a great photograph!" and then they don't recognize anything abstract as poetry. Or a poem brings a tear to their eye, so then a poem that makes them think instead of feel (or vice versa) is not a poem. Let's give the whole elephant a chance!

David Koehn said...

Writing is sometimes an act of discovery or invention or exploration for me. So when I encounter new ways to discover, to invent, to explore, I am often attracted to them...even if they may seem fey in the long run. Like with sex and food...as in poetry...I'll try ANYTHING once and more if I like it. ;-)

Thanks for the recollections Diane.