The inaugural Poets Forum, presented by the Academy of American Poets, convened distinguished poets together on four panels to explore aesthetic diversity in contemporary poetry. The day of talks was part of a three-day festival of sold out readings, literary walking tours, discussions, and celebrations.
The first panel, "Unlikely Influences," featured Lyn Hejinian, Robert Pinsky, Charles Simic, and Susan Stewart, and was moderated by the Academy's Executive Director, Tree Swenson. True to the panel's title, Hejinian started the conversation off in an unlikely way, by playing a sample of "To Itch His Own," Carl Stalling's symphonic soundtrack to the 1958 animated feature by cartoon legend Chuck Jones. Hejinian compared the composer's use of collage and disruption to the rupture and linkage in her own work, explaining her interest in what she described as "those interstitial places ... the doubt, the unresolved material," where "unlikely elements meet each other."
Charles Simic echoed Hejinian's thoughts on montage and collage, and explained how his interest was first sparked during his youth in Belgrade when he spent several weeks in the sixth grade skipping school. He lied to his mother each day, pretending to go to school, but instead he roamed the streets and occasionally watched movies. Eventually, the "wonderful, immense melancholy of a squandered life" descended upon him and he returned to school.
Simic recalled his formative observations of Belgrade from that time: "In the city, everything is the art of collage. How can this ugly building be next to this other building that is exquisitely done?" He cited this style of juxtaposition, of weaving truth and lies, the beautiful and the grotesque, as an important ambition in his poetry.
Robert Pinsky also reached back to his childhood, and recalled the early influence of reading "Surface Tension," a short story by science fiction writer James Blish. In the futuristic tale, a group of humans crash-land on an ocean world and adapt their genetic material so that miniaturized future generations might survive in the lakes and puddles of their new home. From this story, Pinsky learned an important lesson about scale, and often finds himself "thinking in the relative puddle" in his poems. He also shared a related anecdote of meeting a sangomo, a traditional Zulu healer, who explained that they do not worship their ancestors, as some think, instead they consult them.
Continuing up the discussions common theme of collage and exterior influences, Susan Stewart described the effect of her immediate surroundings on her work, such as the sounds outside the window above her desk and the reggae music listened to by her son. She explained how these impressions often enter her poems in almost subliminal ways. A man yelling outside might easily become a voice in one of her poems, or the rhythm of a reggae tune on the radio might form the cadence of a line.
Aesthetic Lineage and Originality
Robert Hass, Galway Kinnell, Nathaniel Mackey, and Ellen Bryant Voigt answered questions about "Aesthetic Lineage and Originality" from critic and founding editor of Parnassus, Herbert Leibowitz. When asked about their early influences, Hass cited Johanna Spyri'sHeidi as a book that inspired him as a child, as well as the poems of John Donne, which were the first he read in which the speaker "sounded like a real person … a person making an utterance."
Galway Kinnell explained his own interest in the transmission of the long, rhythmic line, which he traced from the King James Bible to Christopher Smart to William Blake to Walt Whitman, and finally to Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." Similarly, Nathaniel Mackey described how defining one's lineage is about "finding one's own mix," adding that "writing begins in reading…we read to engage the world. We reach out to the world in writing." Ellen Bryant Voigt then responded that her love for poetry grew from an earlier love of music and sound, explaining that what excited her about music without words became an excitement about "music in words."
The music of words was a dominant theme among the panelists in response to Leibowitz's question about what unifies a poem in the absence of form. Voigt responded that "if sound is primary, it generates the form," explaining how sound and structure are the same in music, while poetry contains two structures, first the syntax and then the rhythm that runs against the syntax in lineation.
Mackey told a story about an open mic night in college where he discovered that he could not read his poems aloud, which led him to write with his mouth, to listen to his work aloud while still in the process of composing. Hass continued the thought, saying "the poem always begins in music" and that metrical verse is an invitation into a trance state, while free verse defies that expectation and calls the reader to pay attention to what will be said next.
Clarity and Obscurity: The Uses and Misuses
In the third panel, "Clarity and Obscurity: The Uses and Misuses," consisting of Carl Phillips, Kay Ryan, and James Tate, and moderated by writer and editor of Agni Sven Birkerts, it was quickly agreed that few poets, if any, are willfully obscure and that most strive for clarity.
As Kay Ryan explained, "clarity is an ideal we can aspire toward because there are so many things that conspire against it." About her intentions for her own work, Ryan said: "I don't want you to think anything about a poem I wrote. I want you to think what I want you to think." However, the danger of clarity is that a poem might be two-dimensional, without implications, Ryan said, "it's just surface and then it's not a poem."
On obscurity, James Tate offered the example of Hart Crane's first book White Buildings, in which Crane "lost track of meaning, of what he was trying to say," said Tate. "It wasn't his intention but he over worked the poems." However, Crane's meaning was clear by the time he wrote The Bridge, as Tate said: "it's all there."
Carl Phillips described his own process, saying: "the writing of poems is wrestling with a question that is irresolvable and the poem is finished when you reach a stasis ... Reading a poem is an act of faith and that involves abandoning oneself to something irresolvable."
Sven Birkerts closed the panel by reading a poem by each of the participants that he found somewhat obscured. For Phillips, he read from "Sea Glass," followed by Ryan's "Waste," about which Ryan said: "It's the kind of poem a tired person writes and it is understood by those people." He then read Tate's humorous and grim poem "Brittle Family Photographs" to which Tate responded, "I want to be on the side that wins. I might flirt with obscurity, but I want to be on the side of clarity in the end."
Drawing from the Past / Breaking from the Past
The day concluded with "Drawing from the Past / Breaking from the Past" with panelists Frank Bidart, Rita Dove, Sharon Olds, and Gerald Stern, moderated by Elizabeth Alexander. The discussion examined notions of received forms and originality. Bidart noted that: "we fill preexisting forms and when we fill them, we change them, and are changed," citing Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus" as a poem that filled the form of dramatic monologue in a new, form-altering way.
Sharon Olds outlined her writing career as an example, explaining that from ages 18 to 22 she wrote story stories and sonnets, from 22 to 29 she aspired to write in the style of Gary Snyder and George Oppen, and then when she was 30, she vowed her willingness to give up anything in order to write poems that were her own and that night poems began pouring out of her. However, twenty years later, she realized the poems she had been writing for two decades that she believed were wholly her own, were in fact all composed in the four beat lines of the hymnal verse of her childhood. It had been there all along, but Olds had reinvented the form in her own image.
Rita Dove explained her experience of making received forms new by saying "It's your hinge that opens it up. The mirror has been smashed. They're all just templates. The story is not the point; it's just the trappings that get us to the real stuff." Gerald Stern added that the tension between tradition and originality is the trajectory of the young artist: "He carries Keats around with him but at the same time his major ambition is to write something the world has never seen before." Received tradition, of course, is closely tied to a poet's background. Stern said, "No matter how you hide it, you can't help writing about your place and your time." Closing the panel, Frank Bidart ended by quoting one of his own poems, a caution against getting caught up in poetic fads, saying: "The history of taste is not the history of art."
Throughout the day, the over two hundred audience members sat in rapt attention as these esteemed poets engaged in frank discussions about their lineage and their work, discussing diverse paths and thoughts about poetry. These rare conversations between poets from different aesthetic backgrounds exposed both divergent opinions as well as many startling convergences, offering a multivalent model for engagement with poetry.