Photo credit: Democratic Underground
And yet, several days later, it’s the conversation behind me, before the reading began, that I can’t stop thinking about.
A semi-young-ish man (my age?) was talking to his seatmate, whom I believed at first glance (and shortly thereafter received conversational confirmation) was his mother, about poetry, specifically, his. Or rather, his mother was talking to him, and saying things like, “your work is just so visceral, and moving,” and he was alternately accepting and deflecting of her praise, and at one point she said, “and one day I have no doubt you’ll be up on that stage,” gesturing with her head to the proscenium in front of us, when it occurred to me, isn’t that why so many of us in the audience were at the Centennial Pulitzer Poetry Celebration anyhow? To praise the champions of the past and present, yes; but also, to dream a little as well? To sit patiently among the groundlings for now, knowing our day was off in the distance and would indeed arrive after years or decades of ink-stained labor and word-play turmoil? Or maybe that was just me, and the guy behind me. But I don’t think so.
The mother went on: “And I’m not just talking that way because I’m your mom.”
Liar, I thought to myself, as I made a mental note to call my own mother the next day and tell her that I love her.
So then the conversation veered to why so many people don’t like poetry, which is a topic as old as time itself and will never die, and the semi-youngish-man brought up that recently published green-covered slim book about the hatred of poetry that some people in our super-insular community seem to have strong feelings about, and the mother went on, “I mean, what a preposterous thing to be! To just, rhyme words together. I think most people look at poets and think, ‘Why do you get to be more of a person than I am?’”
The mother had a point. It made me think about my every three-month visit to my psychiatrist/legalized-drug-dealer, and how we spend most of the forty-five (no, thirty) (mm, twenty-two?) minute session talking about the poems that were recently published in The New Yorker, and whether or not we liked them or not, which most of the time we didn’t, because both the psychiatrist/legalized-drug-dealer and I are a little bit petty and jealous, because we are aspiring poets, or no, because we are human. I told the psychiatrist/legalized-drug-dealer that I had a poem published in a textbook recently, alongside some of the greats, and I watched her face split into two: “That’s wonderful,” said her mouth, while her eyes flashed with envy, as green as the cover of that aforementioned book. I think she must have thought, what the hell are you doing here, seeing me, with a notch like that in your belt? to the which I might have counter-thought, because I can’t slay the Need Beast – now give me my pills!
But back to the mother’s astute observation: somewhere along the way we seem to have decided that to be a poet is to be a Poet, as in some sort of seer or like a wise prophet, someone who lives among us but is able to Feel Bigger or Live Better, and so I suppose in this case, at The Pulitzer Centennial Poetry Celebration, held on Thursday, October 27th, 2016, at Cooper Union in downtown Manhattan, a parade of eleven of the finest and best Livers and Feelers, if you believe all that, were being presented on a public stage before an audience, to be lauded and adored. And something about that didn’t sit well with me. It might be jealously – this I cannot confirm nor deny – but I have been thinking more and more that Poets: They’re Just Like Us! They put on their pants one leg at a time, they take out the garbage, and they get down to their work, much like a craftsman or a carpenter does, only instead of wood they use words, and instead of an invoice at the end they die.
Another thing I have been thinking about, and was confirmed for me at this gilded Centennial event, is that poets – not all, but many – are really not the best folks at reading their work. I mean if the writing is done in private, and the goal is to reach one individual reader at a time, why would we ask the craftsmen and craftswomen to stand before a live audience and read their (often times dense and difficult) verses aloud? This seems akin to showing up at an art gallery opening and watching the painters attempt to juggle. The skillsets don’t have much to do with each other.
I fear I’m not being clear. I would like to be clear.
Here’s a story:
I lived in Washington, D.C. for a year and a half some time ago, and on the last night before I moved to New York, I went over to my then-friends’ Erika and Patrick’s apartment, and they gave me a small little book, like the kind you pick out at the front of a Barnes & Noble register, with pictures of Mickey Mouse on one side and the words to Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” on the other. And I read this poem, in this silly little pocket-sized-book, and it broke me open until I was bawling like a baby. The poem unlocked emotions I had not yet allowed to surface: all the fear and the pride and the uncertainty I was feeling about the direction of my life came bubbling up by way of these few words written in this order. I didn’t know who Mary Oliver was at the time – I was not yet a poet, although I might have been more on my way than I knew – and I didn’t know nor care about awards nor publications nor fancy readings nor name-chaired university positions…I was just this guy, this one guy, in this basement apartment, about to embark on a huge life change, and my friends gave me this little gift of a handful of words that someone else had written, and it moved me, beautifully, all the way into the center of myself.
This is what I want to remember. Even as I seek further homes, online and in tomes, for my verses and word-wares; even as the guy who sat behind me, and all the other many aspiring poets in the audience and the world do the same; even as we each of us quest for success and feed our individual Need Beasts, and struggle to make it to the mountaintop, where the rewards are so few and the climb so steep…
The moment when it’s you – just you – all alone –
And the words work their way down into your bones –
That’s the moment that matters.
The rest is noise.
Josh Lefkowitz won the 2013 Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Prize, an Avery Hopwood Award for Poetry at the University of Michigan, was a finalist for the 2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize, and won First Prize in the 2016 Singapore Poetry Contest. His poems and essays have been published at Barrelhouse, The Rumpus, The Huffington Post, The Offing, and many other places. He has also recorded humorous essays for NPR’s All Things Considered and BBC’s Americana.