Now that I grow older and literally sheaves of poetry have passed before my eyes—let alone hundreds of public and private readings by poets filling my ears with their works—I am struck by the question of what survives. That is, what makes one poem endure—one that we come back to again and again over a lifetime—and others disappear like old-fashioned printed data, the shredded pieces that used to fall like snow from windows in the financial district on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve?
What makes a poem bang and resonate for years? And when it no longer resonates, why is it still possible to go hit it again and the thing keeps resonating? Or, to change metaphor, what makes a certain poem like perpetual butter in a churn, the cow’s milk turned to rich gold, those cubits on our platter.
Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.
We learn that one early as children, singing it over and over again, even though the boat is leaky, there is nothing gentle about the stream, and "merrily" happens most often only when we sing. Yet the song survives in perpetua! Some things endure, I suspect, because they are the opposite of what we know to be true. The verity is in the music, the way it rises and mocks the lie. Simple as that.
Yet, what is it about a real poem, one that does not mock, but endures whatever beauty or trash we throw at it? I have walked around Language for more than 40 years. It is as disturbing as ever. Perhaps the sculpture—a David Smith—in the park is the metaphor. The way one keeps returning and walking around it. One day a wheelbarrow, another day the spare, crude metal letters attached at odd angles to an edge of the barrow—particularly the ampersand—another day the thin dark wheel and its luminescent spokes: the sequence and absence of sequence. Particulars compel an eye to mix the angle of light, with whatever combination of objects, into what stands—at this moment or that moment—to be true.
Anyway, Jack, that is the way I have been reading you. A ring around the poem. It does not fall down. A ring around the poem. The dance the eye makes. The ear. Sometimes you are obnoxious and terrible. Sometimes hopelessly bittersweet. A self-loathing you do go. Other times the
transparency, the poem with an utter overwhelming clarity. The “you” is way gone. Plato’s figures illumined without a shadow on the wall. No wonder you got more than your fingers burnt. Those messages.
The test of a true poet is to correspond.
The test of a true poem? You got me, Jack.
The test is how not to die for it. Believe me.
The ecstatic is not built on an echo
The corrugated skin of the heart
Dappled thoroughly in red, a small vowel
Released, a flooded gorge:
Throw those rocks to the wind
What you shout is about nothing—
When your mother—eyes closed—
Fingers the triangle across the Ouija board
Numbers like Michael Jordan’s baskets
(swish, swish) fall into place: A 3
And a 2 and a 3. The Coach
Is a Cherokee Werewolf, Tiger Woods
Is a caterpillar: transformation falls apart
At the line of scrimmage. What we tackle
Between vowels is the incision
The stone carnage: the way I melt
Trembling—my tail wing in flames:
My head buried and born before you.
Stephen Vincent lives in San Francisco where he is a poet, writer and visual artist. Some of his previous books include: Piece by Piece (Okike + Redberry Publications, 1967); White Lights & Whale Hearts (The Crossing Press, 1971); The Ballad of Artie Bremer (Momo's Press, 1974); Walking (Junction Press, 1993); Sleeping With Sappho (faux ebook, 2004);Triggers (Shearsman ebook, 2005); Walking Theory (Junction Press, 2007); The First 100 Days of Obama (Steven Wolf Fine Arts, 2009). Vincent’s haptic drawings and unique accordion fold books have been featured in gallery exhibits at Braunsein-Quay (2009) and Steven Wolf Fine Arts (2009), San Francisco, and Jack Hanley Gallery (2011), New York City. In 2012, the Logan Gallery, Legion Museum of Art (San Francisco Fine Arts Museums) is planning a one-person exhibit of the drawings and books.
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