A few years ago, at the request of the poet Mark Jarman, I wrote the following “statement of poetic purpose” (which I chose to call an apologia) for the Poet of the Month feature of the PoetryNet website (http://poetrynet.org/index.html). It ran again in January 2009 on the blog of The Kenyon Review, and I reproduce it again here because it seems to me a good basis for further exploration of what I regard as issues crucial to the art of poetry.
I confess that I approach the task of making a statement of poetic purpose with the same apprehension Randall Jarrell felt on being asked what he did for a living by a stranger in the next airplane seat. It is difficult to explain to others just what we are up to as poets; one is tempted simply to point to the poems and leave it at that. But that isn’t fair to people of good will who find the profession of poetry puzzling.
What does poetry do, people sometimes ask, exasperated, it seems, by what they have read or what they have not read; what good is poetry if it has so small an audience?
What good is your pituitary gland, I am prone to answer, and can you say that at this moment you are aware of it? Do you even know what it does? Are you even sure you have one? For the culture, I am convinced, poetry functions on that level; for the engaged individual reader, its work is something else: an electrification, a reminder that there are real mysteries left. For the poet, it is a pure obsession, a sequence of questions which have no answers, of demands that have no satisfaction other than the satisfaction of obsession itself.
The texture of my particular version of this obsession derives from the conviction that poetry inhabits and enunciates an incommensurable zone between individual and collective, between body and body politic, an area very ill-negotiated by most of us most of the time. Our culture, with its emphasis on the individual mind and body, teaches us very little about how even to think about the nature of this problem, which means that our culture, as a collective, is far more mysterious than it seems: even the mystery is hidden. E pluribus unum is a smokescreen: what pluribus; what unum? And yet this phrase is an American mantra, as if it explained something.
Whitman remains the greatest teacher we have yet had on this particular subject, and poets’ fascination with him is founded on his amazing leap into the mind of the body politic. He seems miraculous because what is for most of us a near-unbroachable difficulty was for him no difficulty at all. I am the body politic, his poetry says; I speak the mind of America, the mind of humanity. It is no wonder that the rest of us are a bit more reticent; even if we could think the thoughts of the body politic, would we want to? On the other hand, it may be that contemporary poetry is hypnotized by the good liberalism of the young Wordsworth, who wrote “What is a poet? . . . He is a man speaking to men. . . .” This idea seems so obvious now that—once we translate it out of its gender-specific form—it is well-nigh unquestionable; but the self of Song of Myself is no “mere” human. “I contain multitudes,” Whitman famously wrote; but he also wrote “Who touches this book touches a man.” The boundaries of selfhood are redefined several times over in these two formulations, and Wordsworth’s humble, generous, and simple idea is confounded by the gulf between these poles.
Our present situation, obviously, makes it difficult to share Whitman’s optimistic seamlessness; his job was Adamic, and we live after the American fall (or several of them). It is for that reason, maybe, that American poetry so often pays lip service to Whitman while its practice is grounded much more firmly on Wordsworth. We write most frequently out of “our own” experience, speaking (or singing) in “our own” voices; poetry workshops, critics, and general readers often insist on it (write what you know). And that approach has yielded a large and bountiful crop of poetry in our time, one which is sufficiently diverse in its points of origin that it may seem ungenerous to complain that it is often too similar in method. The most potent divergences we have are neoformalism and language poetry—the former insisting on a return to a former sameness, the latter insisting on the monotony of an idée fixe (what would language do if there were no pesky people involved?). Neither of these routes offers much more than a journey on a Möbius strip.
The most fruitful direction I have assayed is to make my writing a continual meditation on the principle that language is the flesh of the body politic, and therefore deeply complicit in all human doings on the individual as well as the collective plane. I find hope for poetry in this idea, though nothing so ecstatic as Whitman’s near-boundless enthusiasm. Who touches my book touches a book, it seems to me, and forgets this at his or her peril, since men and women are different from books, and more valuable. Still, the book can make a difference; the book can vivify, and the sum of books makes up an important part of the brain and nervous system of humanity.