Here is a Book About Making Poems That Every Library Should Have

Pearl London’s workshop at New School

(Poetry In Person, Twenty-Five Years of Conversation with America’s Poets, Edited by Alexander Neubauer, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, 343pp, $27.95)

You could write a book about poets’ personal libraries-maybe somebody has written one-but how would it be organized? Well, that would be part of the book’s charm, wouldn’t it?

My library is a constant game with chaos that has gone into extra innings. There are the volumes of poetry that I just plain love and to which I go back compulsively- Yeats, Dickinson, Auden, Crane, and many more. Then there are the idea books that, having been read a few times, are comforting to have around, like a favorite sweater. Among these I include I.A. Richards, R.P. Blackmur, John Crowe Ransom, A. Alvarez, and quite a few others. And then there are books that I will never be poet or autodidact enough to forego having on my desk or bed stand: Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry and William Packard’s The Poet’s Dictionary. Kinzie refreshes and renews my knowledge of poetics and prosody. Packard is a glossary of what has slipped my mind. Like Richards, Blackmur, Ransom and Alvarez, Kinzie and Packard mean much more and they have written much more. But these two reference works are essential.

My purpose here is to propose a third reference. Well, technically it’s not a reference, but any working poet will know what I mean: Poetry In Person, Twenty-Five Years of Conversation with America’s Poets, edited by Alexander Neubauer.

It’s one thing to listen to poets talk about poetry. They do it all the time. It’s another thing to examine the work of twenty-three of the best known contemporary poets in a laboratory-with the poets themselves in enthusiastic attendance. This is what makes Poetry in Person both exciting and durable. It is an anatomy of poetry, funny, wry, demanding and surprising.

The heroic task Alexander Neubauer has performed here is to have assiduously edited the records of the late Pearl London, who in 1970 launched a twenty-five-year dialogue with poets that, amazingly, has been preserved on tape as well as paper. Neubauer’s feat is to have organized the record so as to give us a window on one of the most valuable projects in the history of poetry. London’s feat is to have drawn so much out of so many poets with her blazing intelligence.

Why should the book keep company with Kinzie and Packard? Theirs, after all, is a feat of an entirely different order. I think the answer is that a finished poem is quite different from its making. The creative act, the doubts, revisions, spurts of inspiration, alternatives- these facets of a poem play second fiddle once the poem is done, but they shed a white light on the creative act. A white light as opposed to the colors created when we see (read?) something through the prism of its published finality.

If someone were to employ Goethe’s remark that color represents the suffering of light as a context for considering Pearl London’s huge undertaking it could be argued that her laboratory shows us the colors of the act of making a poem. But I prefer to think of the probing of a pure white light under which we see the poet’s mind, his typescript, his handwriting, his marginal annotations, his cross-outs, and the flourish or lack thereof of his hand. All these are clues to what underlies the final poem, which may have won a prize or become the gem of a famous anthology.

The carpenter knows a thousand things we’ll never know about his carpentry. He remembers a certain knot that posed a problem, a certain grain that he had to understand in order to use, a certain hole that was a bit too wide for its peg, the infelicities of the wood with which he somehow collaborated to make his cabinet or sculpture. And this is what we see in London’s laboratory. Every hand-laid floor or cabinet has its secrets. And so does every poem.

When I took up Neubauer’s book I had read much of the work of all but four of its twenty-three poets. Poetry In Person proved my introduction to the work of June Jordan, Stanley Plumly, Li-Young Lee and Eamon Grennan. Meeting these four poets was as thrilling as the dialogue between Pearl London and the other nineteen poets.

THOSE I TOOK OUT HAVE BRACKETS: The poets included are Maxine Kumin, Robert Hass, Muriel Rukeyser, Philip Levine, Louise Gluck, [June Jordan,] James Merrill, Marilyn Hacker, Galway Kinnell, Derek Walcott, Amy Clampitt, Lucille Clifton, [Stanley Plumly,] C.K. Williams, Molly Peacock, Robert Pinsky, Edward Hirsch, Frank Bidart, William Matthews, Paul Muldoon, [Li-Young Lee,] Charles Simic and [Eamon Grennan].

W.S. Merwin and John Ashbery took part in these workshops but are not included here. I would have liked to “overhear” their conversations with London. Frank O’Hara died four years before London began the series. Too bad. I would have liked to see what he had to say in response to her provocative insights. I would also have liked to see her chat with fellow New Yorkers Packard, Jean Valentine and Sharon Olds.

By the time I had read this admirable book halfway I began to think how suitable its underlying concept is to the web. Why not re-institute the Pearl London workshop as an ongoing web project? Perhaps there might be guest “conductors.” How about Tom Holmes, the editor of Redactions, or Tim Green of Rattle? Or perhaps poetry presses, such as Milkweed and CavanKerry, could take turns hosting a moveable Pearl London series-a continuous anatomization of the work of contemporaries.

I would have to have a lot of chutzpah to presume to write knowledgeably about what is going on in these encounters, but I will talk about a few examples. And I do think-especially in the context of my suggestion to rejuvenate the series on the web-that a poet’s handwriting, even typescript, and a poet’s revisions are invaluable not just to the student, but also to the deft editor and the eventual scholar. In fact, they’re invaluable to anyone who loves poetry, because they reveal certainty, uncertainty, exhilaration, doubt, hesitancy, belated insight, second thoughts-an entire alembic of poetic impulses. And the web, with its wondrous hospitality towards imagery, could be employed as Poetry In Person redux.

London resonated profoundly with Stanley Plumly’s work. The typescript of his long poem, “Against Starlings,” is reproduced here. There are so many things I find to like in his work, as London did, that I feel foolishly grateful to her. I made it my business to read more, much more of his work.

Take the first two lines in “Against Starlings”:

Their song is almost painful the way it

penetrates the air-above the haze and

The suspense of those line breaks. The lines drive us to their breaks. He does it again in the next two lines:

level of the fields a thin line drawn.

A wire. Where the birdcall goes to ground. But I’d

… I leave you to read the poem. You should. But what I want to point out that in his typescript he has double-spaced between sentences. This is not an editorial protocol, this is Plumly telling himself, and us, how this work came into his head.

Later we see his handwriting, a bit scratchy, only slightly inclined to the right, quick, not self-conscious. In one instance he crosses out a past tense and makes it present. In another instance he changes “When my day” to “When one done day.” In other words, he opts for a more felicitous sound and he distances himself from the thought. His first draft is sure of itself, but you can see that his changes delight him-it’s there in his handwriting.

And all the while he is discussing these matters in Neubauer’s book with Pearl London. Two pages later, we’re back to typescript edited by hand, and it’s incredibly revealing. When Plumly takes out a line, he takes it out with the care of a sniper-he unrolls barbed wire and makes sure the line is chewed up in it. You can almost feel the old line, the killed line, bleeding in his barbed wire. Why isn’t a cross-out enough for Plumly? Why does he need to make sure that line is dead? This edit is actually a pen-and-ink art work. But still later he merely draws a rolling squiggle over two lines he is abandoning.

I understand this desire to be rid of something for which he has found a rewarding replacement. Sometimes the replacement is silence and white space. But the poet is thrilled to discover a flaw, something that can be excised with certainty, something from which the other lines will thank him for liberating them.

When I studied Arabic I would have been exceedingly grateful for a little discourse about the nature of the script, its magnificent, watery flow. It would have helped me enter the world of Arabic, just as a little discourse about the appearance of Latin or Chinese would have helped pave the way to an understanding of them. This is one of the purposes of London’s inspired idea, to show us how poetry looks in the making, how the poet not only hears but sees the poem.

Poetry In Person is an ideal companion to Kinzie and Packard because it shows what they are talking about in action. It’s about poetry in the making, not about settled or received ideas. London was startlingly open-minded. That is why we shouldn’t let her idea die.

Del’s book, Far From Algiers:

New review of Far from Algiers:

Artists Hill, Literal Latte’s fiction first prize:

His blog:

His mother’s art:

His aunt’s art: