Friday, January 9, 2009

Poetry Friday - On the art of poetry

on the art of poetry

here's one gladiator who's
had it spilling my guts
all over the page for you
the spectator caesar

willingly i've walked onto
the pounded sand to hear
the roar of 20,000 throats
and the breathing of my partners
my adversaries

and each time we faced off
i knew come good or bad
i'd make something of the outcome
blood from stones and roses
from the blood

if i thought i'd gone through
all this the ups and downs
the feet on the throats
the drawn swords the blood
the tears

just to give you the opportunity
to hold a life in your hands
i'd know that not one line
not one long night of joy or pain
had been worth it

here's one gladiator who's
had it bitten the dust
for your diversion and the education
of the young for the last
goddamned time

June 30, 1977

What is poetry for? Or fiction, or drama, or any other art whose maker seeks an audience? And why make it? By the time I began writing poetry again, in my mid-20s, I'd often encountered the idea that an artist takes his or her suffering and transmutes it into art, which helps not only the artist but the audience understand Life better. I was also doubting it. Around this time I read an essay on Sylvia Plath by William Gass, who declared that making art out of suffering may well make the pain hurt worse, and that was an insight that I recognized.

"On the art of poetry" was difficult to write. After several years away from poetry I had written one poem that seemed acceptable, and several that didn't. And I was still struggling with the question I've mentioned before, of what makes a poet. How do you know you're a poet? Was I just another poseur, trying to be a poet even though I wasn't good enough? Was I seeking out unrequited love in hopes that it would give me material? Was it worth it, struggling to make something good if I wasn't good enough? (The editors of the campus literary magazines hadn't thought so when I submitted poems five years earlier.) How good do you have to be? And who's watching the struggle, or the outcome? Does an artist need an audience? I was, of course, basically looking over my own shoulder, being a backseat critic; which is fine after you've written the poems, but not while you're trying to write them.

I still don't have answers to any of these questions. They continued to dog me for the next few years as I wrote more. Some friends whose opinions I respected encouraged me, so I hoped that what I was writing was good; it even seemed good to me. But to this day, unlike my prose writing I find it difficult to judge the poetry I wrote in this period.