Every Monday during National Poetry Month, we hand the stage over to one of our poets for reflections, ruminations, and meditations on their craft. This week we have James Grinwis, author of Exhibit of Forking Paths, with an essay entitled “Loving Sad Poems:”
I love National Poetry Month for being a cannon for the art I am so invested in and love. And while sometimes I may pretend to be happy in my poems, poetry sometimes seems to me to have little room for that.
Great poetry is not about feeling lucky, or happy, or about pretending to be a winner. Even great funny poetry has a deep sadness to it. When James Tate’s “Goodtime Jesus” cracks you up (and it will!), it is because of the ultimate sadness of the thing. That is what the art is about. I get sick of poems that are just funny, with little weight behind them. I’ve seen a few of them recently, but it is so hopeful to me that they are so rare.
Great poetry connects because it is about being sad, being lost, stuck. And the revelation that comes from it. Matthew Arnold on Dover Beach was not some city slicking joker, he was real, trying to communicate sadness and hope. And for poetry to be great it has to be in tune with the misery and pain that goes on day to day in most everyone’s lives. And unfortunately to write good poems you have to have suffered, or lost, felt completely alone. It is like the proverbial lone wolf of literature: very few read it, but the ones who do are like wolves who are lost, wondering what the hell does it take to be back in a pack. And when we read it, it is very annoying to read a pretend alpha wolf. We are usually looking for the Omegas, I believe, for the connection of why we read poetry in the first place.
Even Whitman, I think, would agree. While his poems were affirmations, there was this great sadness about them. In their affirmations they are like prayers. I just heard an American Roots show about John Coltrane, how he was a preacher through sounds. Poetry in some sense, the duende of it, probably has this about it. I can be depressed, but through poetry I can gain a strength that is truly real. It’s not about wordplay, its about truly configuring a state of lostness, communicating it, and making readers, as Transstromer does in every poem, weep a little bit. And after that comes some light. And we want the light when we read poems but not too much of it. It is like a slant of sunlight on an ice pond, or the way an owl alights on a tree.
When Charles Simic said ‘nothing is more serious than a joke” he was looking at this very question. Because jokes at their innermost sources are derived from sadness, and Simic’s poems, while so inventive and funny, have this bleakness about them that makes them great. If it was just the joke, or an ego fest, we are looking at simpleton poems.
I think it is all about the first person. A close friend of mine, Daniel Mahoney, has a wonderful chapbook whose premise concerns invented music reviews, where there is so much language play and energy. These are truly funny. But the poet isn’t talking about how happy he is. He has provided an indirect venue for exciting, fun, things to occur. They are prose poems, and a have a fictional feel, but the things just work, because there is seldom an “I” saying how happy s/he is. Michael Earl Craig is similar, very funny poems, but the root of them is just down in the dirt sad.
God plays with us poets, it is our lot. It’s like He wants to rip out our hearts and turn them into birds. Maybe one or two of them will be crushed by an idiot driver, but most of them, in their misery, sing, and by doing so move us out of our aloneness and help us sing.
Enter the code GRINWIS20 at checkout to receive 20% off James’s book, Exhibit of Forking Paths, through 4/15/12.