Poetry / David Kirby
:: Stanza ::
It means room in Italian, but room itself means both enclosed area and open space, means confinement and as well as freedom. Let the poem say what it will, and let it go silent and speak again when it decides to. Let its words live under pressure: “in the very essence of poetry there is something indecent,” says Milosz, for “a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us,” and we jump back “as if a tiger had sprung out / and stood in the light, lashing his tail.” Poets, listen to your poem! It will tell you what sort of stanzas it wants to be whittled into: long, short, regular, random, or one alone, a stanza like a waterfall toward which the reader floats unknowing. First there is the river, tree-lined and tranquil, then the boulders that churn the water and whiten it with rage, then the precipice itself, and after that, the long flight through a mist that hides a future of which you know nothing, not a thing, only that it’s waiting for you, and you land in the still waters of the pool and sink to the bottom, and your feet touch everything that came before: ancient cities, shipwrecks, the armies of the dead. You rise, and the world is more silent than it will ever be again, and suddenly there’s sunlight and birdsong, and now you know everything.
:: I Should Have It to You by Noon ::
I’d like to write a love poem for you but I’m not sure you’d believe me seeing as how man is ice to truth and fire to falsehood, according to Jean de La Fontaine, though where I come from, we say that a lie can go around the world twice before the truth gets its socks on. Why? Because the more gaps and fissures in your poem or song or story or press release or conspiracy theory or good or bad dream or academic or personal essay, the more room for your audience to let their imaginations slither in. And who’d know that better than Jean de La Fontaine, as the most celebrated of his fables, “The Grasshopper and the Ant,” can be read in two completely different ways? The first has the improvident grasshopper playing his fiddle and dancing while the industrious ant piles up food for the coming winter. When winter arrives, the starving grasshopper begs the ant for something to eat. But the ant says no, and in this way are we told that we should plan for hard times. However there’s another reading in which the grasshopper is a merry fellow filling the air with music and joy and the ant is a cruel old meanie unable to feel the least bit of compassion for his fellow insect. “We laymen have always been intensely curious to know… from what sources that strange creature, the creative writer, draws his material,” says Freud, “and how he manages to make such an impression on us with it and to arouse in us emotions of which, perhaps, we had not even thought ourselves capable.” Jean de La Fontaine answered Freud’s question two hundred years before Freud asked it. If you’re that strange creature the creative writer, you do it this way: you set up a situation and let it play out and refrain from commenting on it, because that’s the beholder’s job. In the eye of the beholder, every entendre is double.
This is why pornography will never be art. Erica Jong said that when you watch a porno, for the first twenty minutes, you want to go home and have sex, and after that, you never want to have sex again. John Waters says watching porn is like watching open-heart surgery.
Sam Phillips, who recorded Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash at Sun Records studio in Memphis, had a knack for steering his artists back to the growls and mumbles that not only made them seem more neighborly to their blue collar audience but also allowed listeners to enter into the music’s sense of playfulness. All those guys wanted to do was get away from farming and truck driving and become regional stars who could play in small-town movie houses and high school gyms in the south, but Phillips insisted they stay in touch with the parts of themselves that didn’t take so well to upward mobility. When Carl Perkins of “Blue Suede Shoes” fame complained that a particular recording session had been “one big original mistake,” Sam Phillips replied, “That’s what Sun Records is.” An interviewer asked Jerry Garcia why the Grateful Dead was so popular since the individual band members never started or ended a song at the same time or played in the same key and often forgot the lyrics, and Garcia said, “Well, you can’t please everybody all the time.” I should have that poem to you by three p.m.
I do know two things about writing a love poem or any poem, for that matter. The first is that you can’t try too hard, and the second is don’t fake it. Tom Waits says, “Writing songs is like capturing birds without killing them.” Alastair Reid once said that he read a master’s thesis someone had written on his poems, and the thesis said that most of Reid’s poems were about rain. What a terrible epiphany! If you know most of your poems are about one thing, you might be tempted to make them about something else, and think of all the awful poems that would ensue. A poet friend of mine who lives in another country wrote that “I am still baffled by America. . . . I cannot understand why there is such a love affair in the country with a joyless obfuscatory poetry that wears out its welcome, for most of us, ultra-rapidly.” If you like to write about rain and you’re good at it, write about rain. Something else about trying too hard is that you might be successful, and then where would you be? When Erik Satie was asked about the fact that Ravel had turned down the Legion of Honor, he said: “It’s not enough to have refused the Legion d’Honneur. The important thing is not to have deserved it in the first place.” As far as faking it goes, you’ll just look silly. In Thomas E. Ricks’ novel Fiasco, a colonel compiling a report is described as “pasting feathers together, hoping for a duck.”
Let me tell you about this poem I’m writing for you. It’s going to be terrific. It’ll be like a Cole Porter musical. It’ll be like the sack of Rome. It’ll be a regular deluge of a poem: there’ll be music, costumes, angels, scenery, food, vivacity, and weekend charades. It’ll be chockful of the finest images available to any poet anywhere. Every image in it will be as fabulous as the one in Le Chien Andalou where the lover is advancing on the pretty girl who’s ready to swat him with a tennis racket but drops it and just stares at him in amazement when, out of nowhere, he shoulders two ropes and starts dragging two priests across the floor, and the two priests are tied to two pianos, and on the two pianos are two dead horses. Religion, art, lust, beastliness: the whole movie’s in that one image, including the lover’s inability to do what he came there to do in the first place, which is to woo the pretty girl. You know, I’m going to feel pretty stupid if I put a lot of time and energy into this poem I’m writing for you only to have you say, “David who?”
As if! Of course you love me. You adore me, in fact. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that you’re writing a poem for me yourself at this very moment, even though you don’t know how to do it any more than I do. Let’s try this. Let’s forget that we don’t know what we’re doing. Who does? Dante didn’t. Dante has spent a sleepless night making his way through the dark forest and is exhausted before his poem even begins. So he turns back when he encounters three snarling beasts, but Virgil tells him he has to go through the fiery center of the earth and contend with minotaurs and flesh-eating harpies and ice giants and Satan himself before he comes out on the other side and finds Beatrice, if he’s lucky. Dante is still exhausted and now he’s terrified as well, but off he goes. Forget the poem. Give me your hand. Take just one step with me, then one more. Let’s be like Dante. Let’s do it. Let’s do it scared.
:: Low-Effort Thinking ::
Did you know that when mob bosses want somebody killed, they get the one of the victim’s friends to do it? That way, if you go to your friend’s house to kill him and are seen entering by a nosy neighbor or if, after the deed’s done, investigators find your fingerprint or a strand of hair, it can be explained away. “I was just dropping off some cannoli,” you could say. “He looked okay to me. Said he had to get his taxes in and find a math tutor for his kid, but otherwise, fine. Is there a problem, officer?” This is what’s called high-effort thinking. The opposite of high-effort thinking is low-effort thinking, which leads to political conservatism according to the scientists who tested that hypothesis by conducting two experiments, one boring and one not. The boring experiment consisted of assigning one group of volunteers to react to items on a list of liberal and conservative statements such as “Large fortunes should be taxed heavily” and “A first consideration of any society is property rights.” Meanwhile, a second group was given the same task but instructed to listen simultaneously to a tape of tones varying in pitch and to count and record the number of tones that preceded each change. Ha, ha! I’d go batshit, too, wouldn’t you, reader? Or at least I’d make conservative choices, as everyone in the second group did.
Popcorn movies as well as most bumper stickers and t-shirts tell us that decisive action by one person saves the day, but in reality, usually that gets you jack diddley. No, no. False starts, trial and error, teamwork: human progress is built on these. And patience. Wittgenstein said, “Philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination lock: each little adjustment of the dials seems to achieve nothing, and only when everything is in place does the door open.”
Case in point: it’s 1967, and Albert King is in the Stax studio, and the recording session for his next album is almost done. Thing is, they need one more song. Now William Bell is in the studio as well, and Mr. Bell has a verse, a chorus, and the bass line to a new song worked out, and when he tries them out on Albert King, the bluesman likes what he hears and asks for the rest. Well, there is no rest. So Mr. Bell goes off with Booker T. Jones of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, and they stay up all night and finish the song, which they call “Born Under a Bad Sign.” The next day, everybody comes back to the studio, and here’s where the story gets good. “Albert King couldn’t read,” Mr. Bell says in the course of an interview about the incident. “You mean he couldn’t read music?” says the interviewer. “A lot of musicians can’t read music —Paul McCartney can’t read music.” “No, I mean he couldn’t read!” says Mr. Bell. “Couldn’t read English. Couldn’t read words. So I stood next to him in the studio and whispered each line to him, and he sang it.” Amazing, huh? Or maybe not. If you’re a musician, especially a successful one, almost certainly not. Good musicians always take their time, and the best musicians listen to others. As they learned their craft, the Beatles played a stint at a Hamburg club called the Indra which was managed by Bruno Koschmider, described by Beatles’ biographer Bob Spitz as “a florid-faced man with a preposterous wig-like mop of hair.” Koschmider would yell “Mach schau!” (“Put on a show!”) during the boys’ lackluster performances. At first the four musicians laughed and staggered around, knocking over mikes as they made fun of the silly German man. But when the audiences went crazy, the boys saw the value of “putting on a show” and became the band that changed the world.
And now for the fun experiment. Mixed-sex groups of experimenters waited outside a bar and asked potential participants if they would complete a short survey on social attitudes and then consent to being tested for blood alcohol levels. Ha, ha again! Can you imagine how much fun it was for the psychology students to accost a bunch of drunkos and ask them to agree or not with statements like “Production and trade should be free of government interference” and “Ultimately, privately property should be abolished”? The drunkos didn’t care; they were drunk. The drunkest among them registered more conservative attitudes because alcohol limits cognitive capacity and disrupts controlled responding while leaving automatic thinking largely intact.
By the way, if you’re wondering if conservatives are all dumb-asses, the answer is “Not quite.” That’s from principal investigator Scott Eidelman, who devised both the boring experiment and the fun one. “Our research shows that low-effort thought promotes political conservatism,” says Dr. Eidelman, “not that political conservatives use low-effort thinking.” Those undergraduates must have had so much fun interviewing those drunkos. “Excuse me, drunko, would you agree that rich people have the right to shove as much money up their backsides as they like?” “Huh? Oh, yeah, and guns and cocaine and—BLOOOOORCH! Excuse me. Say, who are you anyways?” Oh, Jesus. I better not laugh again or I might not be able to stop.
From the writer
:: Account ::
A few years ago, I noticed that I was getting tired of some of my favorite poets and couldn’t figure out why. After all, they were still writing great poems. Then I got it: they were writing the same great poem over and over. To avoid the sameness that can mire the work of any artist who has been going at it as long as I have, I began to think seriously about reinvention. In 2016, I fell hard for the short, punchy poems of Jack Gilbert. Then two years later, I was swept off my feet for the umpteenth time by Ginsberg’s “Howl” and began knocking out poems that one might call cousins to that canonical work. And last summer, I rediscovered Frank O’Hara while looking up someone else. You’ll find examples of all these poem types here.
David Kirby teaches at Florida State University. His collection The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems (LSU Press, 2007) was a finalist for both the National Book Award and Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize. Kirby is the author of Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Continuum, 2009), which the Times Literary Supplement of London called “a hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense” and was named one of Booklist’s Top 10 Black History Non-Fiction Books of 2010. His latest books are a poetry collection, More Than This (LSU Press, 2019), and a textbook modestly entitled The Knowledge: Where Poems Come From and How to Write Them (Flip Learning, 2021).