Pretending to Be a Poet

I enjoyed James Wood’s review of Leaving the Atocha Station in the October 31, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.  The book, written by Ben Lerner, a published poet, is about a young man, Adam, who goes to Spain to spend a year doing research so he can write a long poem about the Spanish Civil War. But it’s really about what’s on his mind, which loops continuously.  The reviews I read – Wood’s and one on the NPR website –suggest the book is reminiscent of my July 30th post, So Many Questions, about Matthew Yaeger for whom one question led to another and another until he’d written a poem of more than a thousand questions.  Or perhaps it’s akin to my favorite quote from John Asbury:   “Writing poetry is like watching TV.  There’s always something on.”

Here’s what caught my eye in Wood’s review.  Wood says, “But if Adam stopped pretending that he was only pretending to be a poet, he would have to write some poems, and confront the questions of talent and of vocation.”  But Adam says, “If I was a poet, I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice, could not evade its anachronism and marginality….”  Wood takes issue with this, but it is hard to say that poetry is not a marginal activity.

For instance, I am trying to find a library copy of poems by a woman, A. E. Stallings.  I saw a reference in a WFOP* Museletter to her poem, “Jigsaw Puzzle.”  It is delightfully inventive and…it rhymes!  Ms. Stallings is a 2011 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, but her books Hapax and Archaic Smile are not available from the South Central Library System.  I can get them from the UW-Madison Library… but I can’t, which is another story.

When I looked up Lerner’s book, “Leaving the Atocha Station,” (Atocha Station is the Madrid train station which was bombed in 2004, killing 190 people), the LINK cat system offered the helpful suggestion that perhaps I meant the attach station or the attaché station or the aitch station or the Attica station or the Arch station.

Wood’s comment that if you stop pretending to be pretending to be a poet you’d have to write some poems, also hit home.  Some people say you are a poet if you write a poem.  Is that enough?  What about Vocation?  The world is full of dilatants like me and then there are some people who work not just on poems, but on the industry that makes it go:  the readings, the meetings, the workshops, the newsletters, chapbooks, reviews, editing, etc., etc., that go into making “making poems” a business or at least a community activity.  As I read local poetry publications like the WFOP Museletter and Verse Wisconsin I am blown away by the labor of love that is producing poetry for the community.  That commitment is a large part of Poetry as Vocation.

*Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets

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