Action-Packed Poetry

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Keith Greiman /

If you were to walk into my living room on a weekend night, that would be creepy. But before I stood up alarmed and demanded to know what you were doing there, you would see me in a big black leather chair that, I’ve been told, is too big for the room. I’d be all dressed up, and reading poetry.

I’ve never had any of the problems with poetry that most people do, i.e., that it’s boring and/or incomprehensible. A voracious reader, I spent my childhood reading things for adults, and learned early to find peace in the stasis of literature. Having read The Rainbow at 14 (I’d heard D.H. Lawrence was dirty), a Robert Hass poem feels action-packed. And as far as comprehension goes, I find poetry actually has very little mystery compared to anything else. Just this morning at the bus stop, a little electronic sign told me my bus was arriving in two minutes, then one minute, then “arriving,” although the street remained empty. Then it was gone. I’d missed a bus that had never arrived. Not a phrase in The Tennis Court Oath can touch that for sheer befuddlement.

My problem with poetry was when to read it–for pleasure, I mean. I know how to read poetry when I’m studying it (Donne out loud in my dorm room, for instance, with my college girlfriend feigning interest); I know how to read it when I’m trying to write it (I ripped off so much of the collected Bishop that she really should have been awarded the 1992 Connecticut Student Poet Prize instead of, ahem, me); and I know how to read it when I’m reviewing it (in three long sittings at my local bar, with bourbon deliciously swaying my critical opinions). When I’m Lemony Snicket, I most surely know how to read Les fleurs du mal to tatters while I’m writing 13 books about terrible things happening to orphans I named Baudelaire in what the French call hommage. But, until a few years ago, I was having trouble figuring out when to read poetry when I just wanted to read.

With the huge tomes, there was simply no way. I’d buy them when they came out–so handsome and hefty that there was a great promise that, as with handsome and hefty people, they’d fix everything right away. But at home they were daunting, unhelped by reviews implying that we’ve all memorized Czeslaw Milosz–ah, yes, “Unde Malum”–and that they should squat on the shelves just for “reference.” But even with a standard volume–you know, about eight years of work for some poets, or a week and a half for Charles Simic–there are only so many poems by a single poet one can read in a sitting. I read two or three poems by Campbell McGrath in a row, and I’m infused with joy at the enthusiasm of his breadth. I read seven or eight, and it is truly admirable that he can maintain a consistency of tone and yet always be surprising. Ten or twelve and that just might be enough Campbell McGrath for a little bit, no offense. Eighteen poems without a break and, seriously, Campbell, shut the fuck up. What to do?

The answer came, as so many answers do, from my wife one Saturday night. It’s an unfair world, and like most of my gender I can go from listening to Sonic Youth in my sweatpants to showered, shaved, and dressed to the nines, ready for the first martini, in 15 minutes–20 with a Windsor knot. My wife, meanwhile, has the patriarchy to contend with, and so, in order to emerge in formal loveliness despite my protests that she looks equally ravishing in a ravished cardigan, requires all the time that there is. This left me at odds one too many times. What to do while I’m waiting for her?

I impulsively grabbed the complete poems of Cesare Pavese and sat in my big, black leather chair. In the bedroom my wife turned on the hair dryer for the third time. “Stunned by the world,” I read,

I reached an age
when I threw punches at air and cried to myself.
Listening to the speech of women
and men,
not knowing how to respond, it’s
not fun.
But this too has passed: I’m not
alone anymore,
and if I still don’t know how
to respond,
I don’t need to. Finding myself, I found company.
–From “Ancestors”

I kept going and I keep going. I’d found a perfect slice of time, as suited for poetry as–you say it, Matthea Harvey–the bathtub is for the human form. I first read Harvey this way, and Chelsey Minnis, and Joshua Beckman. I’ve furrowed through Joshua Clover and raged and raved with Carolyn Kizer. I get snappy with D.A. Powell and happy with James Tate and sappy with Robert Frost. I admire the designs from Wave Books and Ugly Duckling Presse. I try not to let Daisy Fried make me too weepy or Anne Carson make me feel too dim, and I try, again and again, to make legitimate headway with The Changing Light at Sandover because it’s been 20 years and I’m as lost as the earring my darling can’t find. The world doesn’t quite stop while I read, but my space in it is unaccounted for–what better context can one ask for to understand For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut?

I invite everyone who’s dressed and ready to join me. Despite rumor, there’s plenty of space in the living room, even with my chair. Which you should get out of. It’s mine.

Excerpted from Poetry (Jan. 2011), a magazine dedicated to spreading and celebrating the art of the poem, published by the Poetry Foundation. The full essay can be found

This article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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