The Best Thing About Poetry Isn’t Poetry

Poetry / David Kirby


:: The Best Thing About Poetry Isn’t Poetry::

When I take my morning walk, I used to wave at every car that came my way, but only half of 
the drivers waved back, so I stopped waving, but the half that did wave became
accustomed to my friendly greeting, and now they wave at me before I can wave at them,
so I don’t know what to do. I do know I wouldn’t be having these problems if Frank O’Hara were my friend. Ashbery said O’Hara “gave you the feeling of belonging to an exclusive club with him, as if you
had hooked into some big, secret continuum of life. Frank had a personal kind of idea
about things, which made you feel you could think independently, too.” And according to Ginsberg, O’Hara’s “feelings for me seemed to vibrate with my feelings for
myself. I think he saw my ideal self-image; he articulated it and made it sound right.” Remember your first set of friends? When you were a kid, you’d go to their houses for dinner and learned not only about different
foods but also different ways of doing things. You learned that capers weren’t fish eyes but flower buds, that garlic was an actual vegetable
and not a hard dry powder. Sometimes you saw grown-ups drink wine for dinner instead of milk or Pepsi, and when they
gave you a sip, you didn’t like it, but you knew you would. Then there was the time you saw Ryan Mattingly’s dad pat Mrs. Mattingly’s butt in the kitchen
and waited for her to scowl at him the way your mom would, but she smiled instead. Some of my best friends ever are the ones I argued with most, such as Ed, Dennis, and Ken, my
grad-school roommates. Grad school had two effects on us: it made us think we were smarter than we were, and it
furnished us with quotes to use like rapiers as we feinted and lunged in our nightly duels,
a favorite being Blake’s “Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau / Mock on, ’tis all in
vain. / You throw the sand against the wind, / And the wind blows it back again.” Somebody, Ed or Dennis, say, would say, “Would somebody explain to me what structuralism is
so I’ll know whether or not I’m a structuralist?” and someone else, maybe Ken or me,
would say, “You’re wasting your time. Just say what you like and why you like it,” and
whoever said the first thing would say “Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau!” and the
talk would go on forever because we weren’t contradicting each other, Blake was. A good quote attributes the animus to someone else, not you. Or it’s like a potholder you use to
pick up the argument when the argument’s too hot to handle. Mainly, though we spent our afternoon sitting on the floor of the library swapping books of
poems and reading aloud to each other in stagey whispers, our backs against the stacks
like harvesters in a painting by Millet taking a break from the soul-numbing grind of
work. Those guys are all married now. Or re-married. And far away. I never see them any more. I see them every day. Isn’t that how friendship works? Thank you, poetry! Thank you for my friends and the friends to come. When you’re young and you tell people you’re going to study art and poetry, they look at you as
though you’re crazy. When you’re older and you tell people you studied art and poetry,
they say, “I wish I’d done that.”

From the writer


:: Account ::

Ever get the feel­ing that your favorite poets are writ­ing the same good poems over and over again? I start­ed think­ing that way about my own work a few years ago, so I tried some new tricks: short­er poems, longer poems, dif­fer­ent for­mats, edgi­er syn­tax. Painters and song­writ­ers rein­vent them­selves all the time, so why not poets? At the same time I decid­ed to stop think­ing in terms of good, bet­ter, best. The thing is to be dif­fer­ent. If that leads to work you or your read­ers like, fine, but if it doesn’t, with­out a doubt these changes will lead you to some­thing new and then to some­thing even new­er, a way of writ­ing you haven’t come close to imag­in­ing. Remem­ber, poet­ry is the long con, and rein­ven­tion means you’ll stay in the game that much longer. I call some of these new poem types “Gins­bergs.” That doesn’t mean that they read like Gins­berg poems, just that that old bear’s spir­it freed me to take chances.


David Kir­by teach­es at Flori­da State Uni­ver­si­ty. He is the author of Lit­tle Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which the Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment described as “a hymn of praise to the eman­ci­pa­to­ry pow­er of non­sense” and which was named one of Booklist’s Top 10 Black His­to­ry Non-Fic­tion Books of 2010. Enter­tain­ment Week­ly has called Kirby’s poet­ry one of “5 Rea­sons to Live.” In 2016, Kir­by received a Life­time Achieve­ment Award from Flori­da Human­i­ties, which called him “a lit­er­ary trea­sure of our state.”