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Three Great American Poets Converge On The Temple Of Music And Art This Weekend, But Don't Take Our Word For It–See For Yourself.

By Richard Siken

MARCH 29, 1999: 

American Poetry, by Robert Bly (HarperPerennial). Paper, $11.

Nine Gates, by Jane Hirshfield (HarperCollins). Cloth, $22.

My Way, Speeches and Poems by Charles Bernstein (University of Chicago Press). Paper, $18.

SOMETHING IN US wants and wants endlessly. A poet said that. And you're not surprised, are you, because this is the kind of thing that poets are supposed to say. Love, death, memory, history, love, nature, love, love, and maybe the edges of some sudden joy--you know the terrain, dear reader, don't you--these themes like familiar trees the poets swoon against? You have an idea of what a poet says, right? Okay then, but why do poets say these kinds of things? And, dare I ask, who are they talking to? It's not so much that I want to ask what is poetry's aim, but rather who is poetry aiming at? Is poetry aiming at me? At you? Are we poetry's audience?

This weekend a multitude of poets will gather at the Temple of Music and Art for the 17th annual Tucson Poetry Festival, and I'm going to use the next several paragraphs to try to convince you to go and listen to them. I confess, this is not a selfless task. I believe if you go listen to these poets, the world will be a better place for me to live in. What a weird thing to say, you're thinking. Yeah, I know. This whole review surprised me, too.

The theme of this year's festival is "Poetry and the Sacred"-- easy, right?--so I read and re-read the newest books by the six featured poets, hunting for evidence, digging for epiphany, searching for something intelligent to say. I read for days, took copious notes, had hunches and abandoned them for new hunches and, ultimately, failed to find anything consistent, intelligible, or useful to say.

And I didn't just fail, I failed big: confused myself, lost words, found doubt and silences where there hadn't been any, and was left with the question: Why say anything at all?

What is sacred? I'm not sure I have the authority to talk about it and that makes me uncomfortable. Shouldn't I know already? If I haven't figured it out yet, will I be able to figure it out in a couple of days? Will I have to mention God? Wrestle an angel? Will I have to do it in front of you, dear reader? And what if I don't want to have to figure all this out in front of you?

These were my fears, and like all good fears they unhinged into new realizations. These six poets are going to do it in front of us, on-stage, this weekend, and it is the doing it that confuses me, so I thought if I could get us all backstage somehow, I could get a better handle on what these poets are trying to do, and why.

THREE OF THE poets coming to town this weekend have published books of criticism. So, rather than standing as intermediary between you and a book of poems, I'm going to step aside and share what these poets have to say about the sacred when they aren't speaking in verse.

"Something in us wants and wants endlessly," says Robert Bly in American Poetry, his book of essays. And one of the things we want is an open channel, never broken, to the infinite heat of God's room. I want to be able to dismiss this as crazy-talk, but the more I think about it, the less I think it is. Though fierce in his convictions, Robert Bly is no hothead; he's a distinguished editor, translator, and critic, with 10 collections of poetry under his belt. And though I struggled against the thesis of almost every essay in this collection, not wanting to be persuaded by his arguments, I found it hard to remain completely unswayed.

Though the topics of the 26 essays vary, Bly elaborates a central theme: There is a dead world and there is a live world, and we all had better put a little more attention toward connecting to the live world. Not an unsettling premise really, until he begins to develop his argument to show that most American poets have been getting it wrong since 1917. Citing Eliot, Pound, Moore and Williams, Bly argues that the turn towards the objective, the trust in the outer world over the inner, is a turn that American poetry has not yet recovered from, producing a poetry without a spiritual life. In a century of technical obsession, of business mentality, of human effort dissipated among objects, the routing of psychic energy away from the inward is eviscerating.

So how do we plunge inward, avoid spiritual bankruptcy, and join the visible and invisible worlds? Image, says Bly. Use the image to recover the forgotten relationship between things, merge worlds, make associative leaps, avoid mere description and fuse imagination and logic to build bridges between the inner and outer, between the domestic and the wild, and then let something begin to approach you over the bridge.

Jane Hirshfield, like Robert Bly, also believes in the transformative and connective power of the image. She is, however, less harsh in her regard for American poetry and more varied in her approach to connecting with the sacred. Whereas Bly argues strongly and almost exclusively for the image as connector, Hirshfield isn't so singular in her argument. Rather, she puts her attention to a variety of strategies with which poets approach the sacred, illuminating not only the underpinnings of poetic craft--music, rhetoric, image, emotion, story, and voice--but also larger issues of connection, such as concentration and community.

Though Bly uses "bridges" as his metaphor for connection and Hirshfield uses "gates" for hers, both poets seem to agree that the sacred is somehow necessarily connected to the internal, the personal. "Poetry's work is the clarification and magnification of being," says Hirshfield. "The 'I' is not something independent, isolated, or entire in itself," insists Bly.

Okay, sure--connection and clarification. Inward poetry deepens all life around it. A person who enters completely into the experience of a poem is initiated into a deeper intimacy with life. Images and metaphors are like sliding doors, places of openings through which the subjective and objective penetrate each other. So somebody please tell me what Charles Bernstein is doing. I understand some of it, I do. His poetry is not a door or gate or bridge, it's a window. A stained glass window. And you don't look through it, you look at it. And yes, it is beautiful, but mostly it just connects to itself.

I have read the essays in My Way, Speeches and Poems at least twice, and I've only found one clue. Bernstein says, in an essay on the value of Sulfur magazine, "I like to think of myself as the correspondent from the outer reaches of language, because I think language, along with outer space, is the last wilderness, the last frontier--our collective inner space, as strange as the unexplored depths of the oceans, as wild as the word Emily Dickinson proclaimed was language's wildest, just the one syllable, NO."

As far as I can tell, language itself is sacred to Charles Bernstein. He connects language to language, interlinking forms, conflating the high and the low, poetry and criticism, the personal and the political, rubbing word against word against word to crack open their shells. And certainly this is enough, holding language itself as something sacred, drawing attention to it, because it is a primary way in with which we find connection to each other.

And yet, I feel like I missed something, and I would feel okay about that if I was just reviewing some book. But somehow I ended up reviewing something larger, which comes with a greater responsibility, and I wonder if I got it right. It seems important, doesn't it? It seems to me that this is something that should matter.

So back to what I was saying at the beginning: Go to the Poetry Festival this weekend and listen to these poets yourself. Because I think it would be nice to live in a place where we tried to figure this sort of thing out, using first-hand experience as our point of connection, and of understanding.


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