by ryan sparks
Bailey sat in the booth across from me, smoking an Ultra Light that was pointed towards the sloping ceiling above us. We were sitting in Ray’s Place underneath the stairs in the early afternoon. This is the only sane time to approach Ray’s, especially if you are with an older woman. So we hid in a shadowy booth that held off rumors for a little while. One manager always teased Bailey for always coming in with guys half her age. Our soup and half sandwiches were finished, but the plates remained on our table. All around us early afternoon customers were sipping pints and staring at the d’cor. She ashed quietly and laughed, even though I hadn’t said anything.
‘What?’ I asked.
‘Nothing.’ But there was some secret thing about me that had set her off.
‘You know,’ I said, ‘in my younger days, I was enrolled in a private Christian school.’
‘I never would have guessed.’
A good portion of the curriculum was devoted to protestant catechism and doctrine. I remember one class in particular, a Bible-slash-Theology class which consisted of a 45-minute sermon every day from a self-taught, revival service preacher. The particular sermon I remember dealt with the Church and its constant slide towards worldliness. In the preacher’s mind, the Church was what kept America anchored in Righteousness. But whenever the Church gets weak, the current and winds of sin carry America a little farther towards the sharp rocks of destruction’into the arms of the devil.’
‘I see,’ Bailey said, and exhaled.
‘And when the country moved, the Church got dragged along with it. This preacher was always like, ‘Things were better then, praise God!” I slapped the table. ‘You know, the Puritans had their brief sphere of influence, kept things in check, but little by little’the country moved further and further, and the Church kept inching further and further”here I used the salt and pepper shakers to demonstrate”with it. Pretty soon, what do you have? ‘Other Christian Academies holding dances! I’m talking mixed-couples and touching skin here, chirren!”
‘Anyway. Over the years, while I became less attuned to the Holy Spirit, another passion rose up in its place: faith in the well-placed word, the rhythmic sentence, the moving passage.’
‘You’re zealous,’ she said, and it was true. She knew me a little too well, perhaps, but that was her style. She never acted as intelligent as she really was, and if she did let on, it was in a one-on-one like this, when no one else was looking and, therefore, could not accuse her of arrogance. But I felt she deserved to be arrogant, doing all the things she did for her students and writing as well as she did.
‘Yeah. Only in college, I found that, much like the Church, America’s long cultural crawl out of the water and onto dry land has also caused poetry to move, inch by inch, closer towards hell and damnation.’
‘I’m serious. I envy those dead freaks’Pound, Browning, Ginsberg‘who wrote so often and so well, who examined themselves and their nations, who distilled their harvest of experience into clear-bottled similes. I loved them because they did what I could not do.’
”Unearth the lost and tattered maps that led to treasure”’ she quoted.
‘So is that why you took my class?’
‘It seemed like the natural path at the time. What did Pound say? I’ll paraphrase: ‘How can any man undertake to teach or criticize the written works of others when he has never put down a line himself? Godam’d dogs!’ Yeah, so I took Creative Writing. I wanted to see what hand I had been dealt. I found others like me’you know them’with the same passions tumbling over each other in their hearts. But the others’the others.’ I didn’t want to make Bailey uncomfortable, so I didn’t elaborate. She wanted to like every one of her students, but I hated those uncouth imitators and the simply underexposed babes peddling impostor jewelry. I despised them.
‘You were all beginners,’ she said. ‘You can’t blame them for not having read what you’ve read or not having quite the ambition that you did.’
‘I know, but still’there were those people who thought they could get away with anything. I blame pluralism.’
‘Pluralism in the literary world?’
‘Maybe something like it. You know, when people start arguing religion around here and then someone inevitably starts up on how you can’t tell anyone else that what they believe is wrong and that all religions have worth’well, it’s pretty easy to disentangle yourself from such a discussion, but it’s another thing altogether to avoid the idea in Satterfield Hall. I don’t have a definition for the word poem”
‘Well, neither do I.’
”other than I know one when I see one. But I’m surrounded by people, your fellow professors, who claim that now, in this day and age, anything can be a poem. So people are turning in free-writes to you, reading rants aloud, putting stories into rhyme schemes and passing them all off as poems.’ I sighed. ‘Is it true that there was a guy who turned in a piece of paper with only one word on it? Destruction. De-struc-tion. That’s all it was except he had set his type so that the word fell apart on the page. He got an A.’
‘I never heard that. I wouldn’t say it’s not possible, though.’
‘That’s my point,’ I said, now leaning farther over the table, scattering ash in the abandoned ketchup pools. ‘Everyone is becoming more and more afraid to say, ‘No. No, that’s not quite it,’ or ‘No, this has no worth. Start over!’ Why? Because you teachers know that somewhere out there people are getting federal grants and poets are winning prizes and awards for similar non-classical forms of poetry. Post-modernism has both revived an interest in poetry and simultaneously diluted it like so much grocery store brand cranberry juice ruining good vodka.’
‘Well, I don’t think you’re quite in a position to know what it’s like,’ she said. I think I had touched a nerve. ‘I mean, in class, you’re pretty quiet. I don’t see you unloading tirades on them. That’s a problem now, too. None of the students want to intimidate or insult the others. So you all sit there after someone finishes reading, eyes on your desk. Maybe someone offers up a brave, ‘Hey, I liked that,’ or a ‘I don’t quite understand.’ But that’s all the help I get. I’m not going to try to stunt someone’s growth in Intro, obviously. But once you get up higher, I think, the standards are a little tougher.’
‘Yeah, that’s true. You taught a little differently in Poetry I, but there was still’every time I thought the class had gained some momentum, someone would start in again with the dead weight. A girl would read yet another poem about her ex-boyfriend using prevalent conceits of ice and knives. Or the exotic guy would read yet another poem about having sex with his girlfriend filled with metaphors about candles and bird wings. Everyone explored the extremes, the extreme emotions of love and hate, but they do it with such rote passion, such contrived heat that sometimes I’and I say this literally, Bailey’I would spring back to my dorm and console myself with Sandburg and a heat pad.’
‘You did not,’ she said, laughing.
‘Well, the Sandburg. Not the heat pad. But, really, why does relationship poetry outnumber everything else a hundred to one?’
‘Well, you know as well as I do that there’s entertainment thrown at us everyday, from all sides, pitched in in megahertz and kilowatts. Some of these students are just rehashing what they’re seeing, which, in turn, has also been rehashed. There’s really only so many things to talk about. I mean, look at pop radio. Every one of my students has a playlist on their computer at least a thousand songs long, I’m sure.’
‘Don’t get me wrong: pop songs can reach our private hearts, too, but when you have an entity like that hanging out there accessible 24-7 (barring commercial interruption), its colors are going to slowly bleed into the fabric of our means of self-expression. And in a time where’what is it called? New Metal?’
‘Nu-metal,’ I said. ‘With a u and an umlaut.’
‘God. You kids. Where nu-metal is the burgeoning competition with American Idol contest winners, hate and love are going to be the two most rediscovered areas of the soul and the field reports are going to keep coming back to the civilized world again and again.’
‘Yeah, you’re right,’ I said. ‘I mean, not only has the three-minute song stripped down our spectrum of emotion, but it has also evaporated our unconscious sense of format and structure. These days, it seems to me, the use of repetition has become more and more prevalent in contemporary poetry, and not just in creative writing classes.’
‘Well, some of that comes from, you know, this neo-primitive style and also more of an awareness of Buddhist poetry.’
‘I don’t know. I think the cause is much more immediate. Verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus has almost become a hardwired component of our minds. More and more often poets are filling their poems with repeated lines. Maybe they feel that the double statement can add double impact, two right-hand jabs disguised as a one-two punch. Frost got away with it, right?’
‘But the more talented and aware poets out there are executing some kind of wordplay where there is pseudo-repetition dependent on semantics”
‘But if you ask anyone unfamiliar with poetry to make up a poem on the spot or make fun of serious poetry, chances are they will read off-rhythm, over-emphasize words, and repeat closing couplets a la Mike Myers in So I Married an Axe Murderer. They may also ask for a beret for a prop.’
‘That’s what it is!’ I yelled, striking the table again. I imagined it in a marquee above her head: ‘THE MARGINALIZATION OF POETRY ON A GRAND SCALE!’ Bailey was giggling harder now. I wanted to cry. I told her how just the previous week I was looking for Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion at the campus bookstore and was directed to the monthly specials table. This month’s theme on the table was Beat writers. I found the book, but not before being affronted by a large poster that announced, ‘Buy Three Penguin Edition Beat Classics and get a FREE beret! (While supplies last.)’ Poets, it seems, not only use metonymy, but are subject to it themselves. This may not be completely unavoidable; our culture knows the most about the past than any other culture on the earth. We have the texts of civilizations and empires of the past 3,000 years in our possession, and they are all available in mass-market paperback. There is so much that we collectively know that no one person could possibly ever know it all or become familiar with it. As a result, we group. We stick like things of the past into jars and assign them label. We remember literary movements by their key player, and not much else. Romantic poetry (in the purest sense): Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Modernist poetry: T.S. Eliot. Sonnets: Shakespeare. Beats: Jack Kerouac. Or berets.
‘And those are the big names,’ I whined to her, ‘but even some Literature majors couldn’t draw matching lines between two scrambled columns of names and styles. Almost everything else gets ignored except by niche-seeking researchers and the odd self-starting bibliophile. There is no US Weekly equivalent for contemporary poets. There is no Rolling Stone offering reviews of new chapbooks and collections or photo essays depicting a day in the life of Billy Collins.’
‘Well, that’s how it is, Ryan,’ she said. Her eyes were settled now into a kind of sympathy. I realized that she herself had watched poetry drift in her lifetime, whereas I just knew the aftermath. ‘You have to go looking for poetry if you want to find it. It’s not pumped into places except for high school classrooms, and if you made up a list of worthwhile poetry you were assigned to read in high school, it might not even have enough syllables for a haiku.’ She stopped to dig into her purse for scattered singles to pay the bill. She spoke down into it, sadly. ‘Poetry has become non-essential, a curious antique, and its role in western society has been diminished. There used to be environments that favored and spawned people like Homer, you know, people who acted as both entertainer and cross-examiner of the human heart and mind. But, now, our American civilization is hostile territory.’
I agreed and fished out my wallet. ‘Poetry exists almost solely for self-expression or as a display of talent exchanged like business cards between like-minded individuals in journals and literary reviews. Poetry is no longer a tool used for inciting the masses to change, rallying a nation or sub-culture behind a cause, or merely conveying beauty and intense personal moments on the massive level.’
Bailey sighed. ‘We have network news producers who do that now.’ She stacked her bills underneath the check. ‘But, as they always say, all is not lost. There are still people who thrive on the heart-carved phrase or an image that is written so perfectly that it captures its subject with more accuracy than even a photograph could. Amongst the shit and filth of the blogs, the coffee shops, and even the pages of the New Yorker, some poems rise like heat, rebuild the razed structures, and open doors we thought were securely locked”
I tried to smile.
Outside in the bright light of iced-over Franklin Street, our hands brushed before we told each other to drive safely.
‘Don’t give up on it all, Ryan. These poets and their words take a little bit of searching to find. You must have a mustard seed of faith. Not in things unseen, just unrealized.’