Poetry can be intimidating, it can seem like something to be relegated to the fringes of modern life - too obscure, too arcane, not relevant to the concerns of our daily life. And yet it always keeps finding its way back in: too insistent to be ignored, too memorable to be forgotten.
Poetry comes from poets, and one of the best ways to get close to it is to have the poet come to you, to bring it to you in his or her own voice. Here in the Hudson Valley, we've been fortunate to have Ulster County Community College's annual rite of spring, the presentation of an important American poet. This year, on April 14, it will be Galway Kinnell, Pulitzer Prize winner, author of 15 collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Imperfect Thirst(Knopf).
The poet's voice is the public part of his art. As Kinnell explains it, "When you're writing, you're not very aware of an audience. No doubt it's around the fringes of your consciousness, that you are setting out to make something whose eventually destiny is to touch the hearts of people who will read it. But that disappears as you get deeper into the writing, which is a process of making, of constructing an object which will contain a version of the truth.
"In reading, your task becomes to put the poem into those hearts. You have to focus on getting to the audience, on finding your way there. You have to reach out, even when you're not quite sure who you're reaching out to, when the lights are bright and you can't see the audience."
The poetry that Kinnell will undertake to put into the hearts of his listeners is personal and passionate, ranging in themes from the everyday to the magical, from tingling eroticism to sly humor - sometimes, it seem, all at once. Here he is dealing with a cat which has indefinable but disquieting powers and a not necessarily benign agenda - in short, a cat like most cats:
I do know - I don't dare say it aloud -
when the cat is around something goes wrong.
Why doesn't our host forewarn us? Well,
he tries. He gives each guest on arrival
a list of instructions about the cat.
I was never able to read mine,
for the cat was watching when I got it,
so I stuck it in my pocket to read later,
but the cat saw, leapt at me, nearly
knocked me down, clawed at the pocket,
would have ripped my clothes off
if I had not handed it over…
"Coming of your own free will is the only preparation you need to enjoy a poetry reading," Kinnell says. "When I read, I generally begin with accessible poems featuring recognizable situations, so that if the listener has little familiarity with poetry, the work won't seem too arcane - the poems will deal with day-to-day life."
"The Cat" is one of those accessible poems, the kind that moves the reader magically from a recognizable situation of an awkward weekend in the country through the pain of failed relationships and guilt. Another - a poem that Kinnell says he'll probably read at the UCCC reading - looks at something as recognizable as oatmeal, and as day-to-day as the eating of it for breakfast:
I eat oatmeal for breakfast.
I make it on the hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.
I eat it alone.
But wait…in Kinnell's world, eating oatmeal is not as simple as all that. Especially eating it alone.
I am aware that it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.
Its consistency is such that it is better for your mental health if somebody eats it with you.
If you can't find anyone to eat oatmeal with you, an imaginary friend is always an option, and Kinnell chooses to eat his with John Keats, who confides, over the "glutinous texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime, and unusual willingness to disintegrate" of a good bowl of oatmeal that he had "a 'eck of a toime" writing "Ode to a Nightingale."
Kinnell sees a new kind of audience developing for poetry, an audience that's "more adult - it's not like the Sixties, when poetry was part of the youth movement." At the same time, he sees a parallel development, one that's much more diversified. Just as the youthful, rebellious spirit of the Sixties liberated poetry from "a solemn air of a small group of 'appointed' poets," the new expansive spread of of poetry means that "you have everything from rappers to language poets to cowboy poets - I'll be doing a reading with a cowboy poet later this spring."
He sees promise in the new generation of youthful styles, such as slam poetry and rap: "Rap has a wonderful potential, but its fulfillment depends on achieving a density. If it could, in the hands of certain artists, continue to have that vibrant excitement, but also a new kind of density, then that would make it real poetry." He's intrigued by the potential of new technology, as well: "The internet is beginning to have an effect. It hasn't done all it's going to do, yet. But the idea of calling up a poem, or of calling up a voice reading a poem, is very intriguing."
Vibrant excitement plus density creates the kind of total commitment to poetry that Kinnell describes in an early poem, "Another Night in the Ruins":
On some hill of despair
you kindle can light the great sky -
though it's true, of course, to make it burn
you have to throw yourself in…
"It's true," Kinnell comments, "that an artist, in a way you do have to give everything - you can't hold back. Rilke, for example, totally threw himself in. Nothing else interested him but poetry. When he got ignited, the sky really lit up. Berryman, too, made that kind of Faustian bargain - total immersion for a period of time, and then it's over. This doesn't have to only apply to poets, of course. In less literary terms, it can apply to anyone who overdoes it, whose great project is self-destructive."
Kinnell has burned without self-destructing. From his first poetry collection in 1960, through his Pulitzer Prize for his 1983 Selected Poems, he has established himself as, and remained, a major force in our contemporary literary culture.