David Wright explains his O'Hara-esque, telephone approach to writing poems. Consider the poems of the field, how they are spun out of nothing but language and time, how they come from a desire to listen and to be heard. Consider how damned many of them exist, and how they wither and die and go, mostly, unread, certainly by the many and, more certainly, by the eternal eyeballs of history and fame.
That's what I did last summer after I finished writing a new poetry manuscript. I considered. I despaired.
But so what, I thought next? Who writes and doesn't despair? Shouldn't it be enough to know that I've written, spun a little yellow dress of thought and sound? I've made a little thing of near beauty that exists in my temporary eye? Perhaps the poems mattered at least in the sparrow-centered eye of God?
You can be Platonic, but I want more. I think most other poets do too. I don't love poetry in the abstract. I don't want the poems that Wordsworth or Whitman or Denise Levertov or Robert Hayden or Lisel Mueller (or thousands of others) wrote and no one ever saw. I want and value the verse they did write, the messes of sound, image, and fierce conniving that have come to me as gifts between covers or on screens or as little blessings while trying to fall asleep at night, that have detonated as frightening explosions in the midst of conversations. I need those poems, not invisible ones. Poems won't and can't save world, but some have come close to saving me. So I'd like the ones I write to do at least a portion of the good that other folks' poems have accomplished in my own experience.
So I decided to start writing poems for and about particular people. On my tumblr, I posted a little note to friends, family, and acquaintances inviting them to “send me your mailing address and I will send you an original poem, written just for you, on a postcard, for free! I’ll do my best to make the poem as personal as possible—maybe something about our relationship, or about you as I know/remember you, or perhaps something we might talk about if we were hanging out together.”
Several of the poems included in this issue of Relief come right out of the postcard poem effort. They have people's names on them, either explicitly or implicitly. And when I looked back at earlier poems, I realized how many of those also include someone's name (see the poem “After David Hooker” in this issue, a poem for an amazing artist and teacher of art).
As a way of getting myself writing again after finishing a long project, I knew this approach would work, in part because I'm motivated socially, always working better when others are part of the process. But another important motivation was to remind myself that I write poems because they exist most vibrantly for me when I see them as exchanges between human beings, not as the construction of mere linguistic artifacts abstracted from lived human experience. While Keats' urn may tell us that melodies "unheard / Are sweeter", I think music requires other listeners and other singers. A song is incomplete until someone else's body receives and repeats and varies the tune.
Now you might think I'm echoing ideas from Frank O'Hara's "Personism: A Manifesto", and you'd be right. It's a great little manifesto where O'Hara says that, after having lunch with the poet LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), O'Hara invented a new philosophy of verse. O'Hara was talking to Jones about how he was in love, and then he went home to write a poem. Writes O'Hara: "While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It's a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages."
Of course, as O'Hara points out, it's not a completely simple idea. As he describes it, personism is not just a transcript of some kind of thing in the world. It “does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! But to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love's life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet's feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person.” In my case, though, I suspect my own poems are about intimacy, about the desire for it to be practiced and overheard.
To do anything worthwhile, I think, poems have to matter—to someone, in some place—at least in the generating of the poem itself. I want to feel like someone cares, even if they don't. That's why so many of my own recent poems have come into being because of some other person, often named or mentioned in the poem. Some of the people in the poems are very much alive and make appearances in the poems whether they like it or not. Some of the people have been dead for a short or long time, and when they show up I enjoy their presence again. Some of the poems are not about anyone, but I still think of them as gifts to someone, often someone particular. So in my head, the poems matter to them, even if they don't, and that makes them part of the world of matter, of relational knowing and being.
I don't think to read or to care about these poems readers of Relief need to know the two persons between whom a particular poem lives. What matters, though, is that the poem was generated by persons, living ones, and that makes me feel pleasure and opens possible pleasures for readers. That's why there are names on and in the poems—names of real women and men to whom they were dedicated and often mailed; names of writers whose language I was given and wanted to pass along or fiddle with; names of people who make other kinds of art or are writers themselves.
Wendell Berry, another guru of mine, has said that the real habitat of art is not the textbook or the museum but households and friendships. Poems, says Berry, “exist as a common ground between the poet and other poets and other people, living and dead. Any poem worth the name is the product of convocation.” That's what I'm thinking of these days—what is the convocation, the conversation of which I want to be a part, poetically and otherwise. It's not simple, but it's worthwhile. Perhaps, now that summer is here, I can start writing those postcard poems again. Ask me for one if you like.
David Wright's poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in Ecotone, Image, The Artful Dodge, Wunderkammer, and Books & Culture, among others. His most recent poetry collection is A Liturgy for Stones (Cascadia, 2003). He lives with his family and teaches in Champaign, IL.