A poem is a story
of spiritual space
In the fall of 1967, sitting by my nineteen-year old self in the cellar/cave portion of a famous Stockholm pub called Brända Tomten (“The Burnt Parcel”) with a small carafe of white wine—half of which had already found its way into my belly—a fountain pen, and some paper—more or less convinced that in a previous life I had been Charles Baudelaire—I jotted a few “deep” lines down on the paper and then called it a poem.
I think the lines rhymed.
Irrepressible optimist that I was at the time I submitted this “poem” to a magazine (or a daily paper, I forget which) that actually replied within a few days. Nice poem, the editor said, but far too reminiscent, plagiarizing even, of some Swedish poet that I had never heard of. I looked her up, of course, this Swedish poet, and found that she was quite famous, several books (collection of poems) to her credit.
Discovering this, I naturally took this accusation as a compliment. My little three-minute scribble compared to this, apparently, modern icon of Swedish poetry. Oh, well, I thought, I guess that makes me a poet too.
I’m not sure I ever told anyone about this—though it would surprise me if I did not for at that time I always held center stage in my life and actors always need an audience.
Yet, this I knew: the poem, the deep lines, were fake. They were just colors that I tossed upon the wall to see what kind of pattern they would make. It was more a matter of chance than anything else; a matter of what words happened to surface at the time and spill their way onto paper. Should anyone (killjoy) have asked me at the time: well, what do you mean? I would have been stumped for an answer. Completely.
Now, Baudelaire was a poet, a true one. I believe History has proven him out. Still, I felt that he, too, somehow, was cheating for he wrote mainly what he called prose poems, which to my way of thinking were nothing but stray thoughts captured and wrestled down onto paper. I mean, what trick, or skill, was there to that? You just jotted down what did in fact float to the top without even a need to look out for (or try to chase down) rhymes. And when enough words had floated to the top and thence and onto paper, then you simply stopped writing and said: that’s a prose poem. Nothing to it.
Deep though, they obviously had to be.
The thing was, on some very self-aggrandizing level, I expected some true genius (for it would take one, to say the least) to read and interpret and explain to the world (and to me) what I meant by my poems; yes, it would take a genius to unearth and recognize (and hail) the true genius of my shamelessly simulated prose poems.
So, I wrote lots of them, these impersonations, nothing to them. This was a fecund, freewheeling, teenage mind at play.
Then one day, much later, I read, or heard rather, a real poem: or a line from a real poem. I went like this: “A helicopter lands on the Pan Am roof / Like a dragonfly on a tomb.”
The image that sprung live in my mind was vast and vivid. And real. And perfect. And incredibly precise. And encompassing. And Joni Mitchell’s.
New York. Park Avenue. A thousand cars, a million people. A cloudy sky. A giant tomb at the far end (though, actually in the middle) of this broad, busy metropolitan avenue. And landing atop this tomb, a metallic dragonfly.
I had seen it several times, though never really thought about it. Well, I had thought about whomever had so much money they could skip taxis and limos to instead helicopter their way into the city from Kennedy or La Guardia.
Possibly the perfect metaphor. But then again, what is poetry but one, or two, or a few, perfect metaphors?
Denise Levertov opens her final poetry collection, This Great Unknowing, with this line: “I move among the ankles of forest Elders.”
This, to me, is an as true and evocative gathering of words one can ever hope to luck across. With them spring the forest, the ancient (and wise) trees. The air, the understory, the overstory, the cries of distant, or not so distant birds. The fog perhaps, or even rain. The soundless tread of reverent steps upon moss or needled-covered ground. Awe. Silence. Communion. One life to another. Father and child. Uncle and niece. Wisdom to youth—even if that youth was walking her final days, as Levertov was at the time.
Haikus make no bones about it. Seventeen syllables (more or less) are supposed to evoke a world, or at least a small portion of it, vividly. But for me, they sometimes appear as angles crafted on the heads of pins, as fine miniatures too elaborately fashioned, metaphors too meticulously spun.
Then, again, I think of Baudelaire and his rambling, fascinating bits of French life, so replete with desire and suffering, enchantment and thirst, darkness and strange moons.
And then I think of Mitchell and Levertov and I realize that a good poem, one that originates in the unpretentious heart, then travels (via words) to the grateful heart of another there to settle and sprout a world as vast as any novel’s.
Which is when I realize that a poem is a story (a novel even), says as much as any story, is as long as any novel: there is just so very much more space between the words.