What is a poem? People often ask me that, and I always feel that it’s one of those easy questions that’s impossible to answer, like trying to define or dissect a kiss. Donald Hall calls a poem a deliciousness of the senses. Emily Dickinson wrote in a letter: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” William Carlos Williams believed a poem was a little machine made out of words. Laura Howard, a young poet in one of my classes, called a poem a brand-new pair of red go-go boots. Here’s Coleridge’s famous definition of poetic imagination: “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am.” Robert Frost said poetry is a wild tune, a necessary stay against con-fusion. But definition and denotation are the enemies of poetry; one can only reach an approximation, for it’s like trying to pin down what is con-stantly moving, shifting, vital, protean—
Over the years, introducing poets to a wide audience on National Public Radio (NPR), I discovered that what is most interesting about poetry right now in America is the remarkable polyphonic medley of voices and audiences. I wasn’t interested in reporting or touting the pickings from particular literary trends, the academic marketplace, or certain aesthetic schools. To declare the three or four top voices that will live on didn’t seem pertinent to the task at hand, nor did it accurately convey what is going on in the country. Instead, as a practitioner and lover of poetry, I wanted to offer a wide range of voices showing how varied the imagination can be, how complex and full of possibility. That is to say, the poems in this book are not composed around a commonly agreed middle C. Instead, these poems—sometimes tuneful, sometimes hymnal, other times rau-cous and scraping—harmonize on the racket and cacophony of our times in an admixture of seduction, heartbreak, consolation, and wisdom. In the marvelous way they attend to the world, these poems make a love-music that undermines generalizations and presuppositions about poetry and about the voices behind the poems. For example, the most passionate and profound love poems in the collection are by poets over the age of sixty. If anything, considering the contents of this book, a poem could be defined as a conversation. Muriel Rukeyser called poetry “a meeting place.” A meeting place where conversations can take place between the poem and the reader; between imaginations, identities, landscapes, bor-ders, and boundaries; between the world of personal experience, such as dreams and private perceptions, and the world of data-based historically recorded fact; a conversation on life and its irrevocable choices. Rukeyser says, “A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites total response. Poetry asks us to feel and it asks us to respond.” This is a conversation full of wonder and nourishment, and you are invited to engage with the questions and answers grafted between the lines and images. Listening to or reading a poem is an invitation for both poem and reader to engage in what Octavio Paz calls “two moments of a single reality.”
Often this conversation is uneasy, asks tough questions. Many of the writers included here have lived through hardships, abuse, poverty, ill-ness, and the devastation of racism and war; yet in spite of their grappling with life’s pain, we also hear the rocking solace of a lullaby: the poet transcending sorrow through the music of language—through song.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky has said, “Poetry is a vocal, which is to say a bodily art. The medium of poetry is a human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth. In this sense, poetry is just as physical or bodily an art as dancing.” Listeners of NPR have told me over and over that hearing poems read out loud offered a way into poetry they had not discovered through simply reading; they discovered new ways to experience the poem. To take the poem off the page and into the airwaves gives us a way to participate in the physicality of the poem. There is, I believe, a return to poetry’s earlier origins and roots in the spoken word, as it attempts to resist the mind/body split that typifies so much of our lives and public discourse. The voice mediated through the telephone, the microphone, the radio, the tape recorder, the webstream, and other sound technologies; the modernists’ and post–World War II poets’ impulse to create a poetry based on the rhythms of American speech; and a desire to return to so-called primitive poetry of spoken ritual and spirituality: all these point to a growing emphasis on the oral nature of poetry. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” was originally titled “He Do the Police in Different Voices.” Langston Hughes created a literary verse form out of the blues. The spoken, oral aspects of poetry were essential to the work of such poets as Frank O’Hara, Denise Levertov, Ricardo Sanchez, Charles Olson, Amiri Baraka, and Alan Ginsberg with their emphasis on talking, breath, folk forms, organic physical structures, and musical vocalizations. Ginsberg and Robert Creeley said the inspiration for their poetic line came not from iambic pentameter but from listening to bebop. Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, and Quincy Troupe often collaborate and perform with musicians and composers. In this sense, NPR has done something quite radical and avant-garde by following the lead of the poets and allowing us to experience the poem off the page in a way that is both rhythm-based and meaning-based. For in poetry, rhythm is the highest form of meaning. In an essay called “Poetry & the Microphone,” George Orwell says, “if true poetry could be introduced to the big public in such a way as to make it seem normal ...then part of the prejudice against it might be overcome.”
In the spring of 1995, NPR’s All Things Considered ® invited me to be their on-the-air “poet-reporter” for an ongoing series on contemporary poetry. This book is a collection of the poems and poets we have show-cased since 1995. (Some of the poems that we recorded but could not air because of time restraints are also included here.) In these five- to ten-minute segments, broadcast to an audience of over eight million world-wide, NPR listeners would usually hear three or four poems recorded by the author in the studio. My job was to act as a kind of Poetry DJ, introducing the poems and poet, and then commenting in a chat-style format, usually with All Things Considered hosts Linda Wertheimer and Noah Adams. The poetry showcase not only quickly and inexpensively featured a whole array of poets, but also talked about poetry in a casual, nonacademic manner, offering people not only poems to listen to, but also a model in which to talk about poetry without being pretentious and rarified, keeping it conversational.
I first started thinking about this project when I was living on a ranch in the Texas Hill Country and working on a new book of poems. Most evenings, I would sit on the front porch meditating on the limestone and granite cliffs, mottled with live oak and the gnarly cedar. Colossal longhorn steer, souvenirs from the old west, would wander like clockwork through the yard from the next-door ranch. I listened to the radio a lot, and I started wondering why I never heard any poetry on the radio. Looking up at the big Texas sky, I remembered many years as a kid with the transistor radio up to my ear listening to late-night FM as I imagined the world and all of its animals asleep. This is the same feeling of reverie I have when reading poetry, a feeling of transcending time and space into various other worlds and frequencies. Most of all, poetry, with its great compression and linguistic music, seemed just right for the radio. Real poetry was being written and read more than ever before, but why the invisibility in the mainstream media? My suspicion was that it had more to do with marketing and exposure and the current critical discourse around poetry, than with poetry’s decline as a cultural force in people’s lives.
My home at the time was in New York City, where I had been working as a poet-in-the-schools with Teachers & Writers Collaborative. An itinerant poetry lady, I traveled all over New York City, from elementary schools in the South Bronx to the High School for Pregnant and Parenting Teens in East New York, and during these residencies I had observed the absolute pleasure and joy young people found in reading and writing poetry. I also loved going to poetry readings. There was an exciting scene burgeoning downtown. On any given Friday night, at the Nuyorican Poets Café, Miguel Algarín and Bob Holman would introduce the packed room to exciting new voices—bringing poetry off the page, onto the stage—challenging notions about where poetry comes from, who has access to it, who writes, it and who reads it. Uptown, there were the more established but equally exciting readings sponsored by the Academy of American Poets or the Ninety-second Street Y. These series, plus many others, both uptown and downtown, came out of the work of poets and arts activists like Paul Blackburn and Elizabeth Cray, who early on understood the significance of reading poetry out loud and recording it. Currently, on any given night there are poetry readings and open mics in cities all over the country. Perhaps this resurgence and interest in the spoken word is bigger than poetry. Maybe it has to do with a human need, a real hunger for a genuine physical experience of language itself.
When I returned to New York from Texas, my husband, Andy Biskin, helped me make a cassette tape of five poets reading their poems along with very brief recorded introductions. One of the poets was the late Joseph Brodsky, whom we recorded on my Walkman one afternoon at our dining room table over coffee. My idea was simply to showcase the poems, to hear the poet reading his or her work. When I sent the tape in to NPR I was acting as an advocate of poetry more than anything else. A few days later All Things Considered producer Margaret Low Smith called saying they liked my ideas but wanted one small change: they wanted me to introduce the poets and talk a little about the poems. It turned out they had been wanting to get poetry on the air for a while, and they saw my recordings as a way to do it.
William Carlos Williams said, “If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem.” I try to keep his words in mind when I introduce poems; the idea is to open doors, not give reading instructions—to show just how pleasurable hearing and reading poems can be. The poems are often short, often accessible, showing that accessibility can be emotionally and intellectually complex. That poetry doesn’t have to wear priestly robes, speak in puzzles, smell like a rare and perfect rose, and float in the realm of ideas instead of walking firmly on the ground. The poetry showcase has been extraordinarily popular for listeners. Letters and e-mails have come in from all over the world, some with questions and comments, some to applaud, some to heckle, others to critique and complain, most wanting to know where they could get the book. One man wrote from a maximum security prison, sending along a small religious medallion. Don’t send it back, he said, it won’t get through the metal detector. I loved the thought that poetry on the radio could get past metal detectors and into maximum security prisons.
It’s a paradox, because when you listen to a poem on the radio you may be chopping tomatoes at home, driving the afternoon car pool, or typing at the office, and it feels as if the poet is speaking directly to you, even though millions of people are listening to the poem at the same time. It’s a way to experience and interact with the poem in a very personal way, providing an intimacy that is both communal and private.
Likewise, the poet is sitting alone in a glassed-in sound studio; his or her voice is digitized, and then miraculously reassembled through a fiber-optic cable and sent into the homes, workplaces, and car stereos of millions. These poems offer a series of private, individual voices speaking out in the public sphere, an alternative to the numbing, all too familiar language of public discourse, newspeak, and advertising. Historically, rather than an instrument to channel and transmit possibilities for love, trust, and peace, the radio has often been and continues to be a vehicle for the apostles of hate and fear, fundamentalism, fanaticism, racism, and other ideologies of intolerance. The sound of the voice, over the airwaves, in sermon and in song, as well as in poetry, has a commanding effect on the human psyche. The ear is an opening with a direct line to the brain and the heart. Unlike the mouth and the eyes, it never closes.
While the radio is often used as a tool to propagate a false unified majority, it can also be a way to show both community and difference within community. We’re not used to hearing private voices speaking on private experiences over the air, in the public sphere. When poems are sandwiched in between news and the telling of world events, they are themselves news. Poems are either praise-songs or laments. The poems collected here lean more toward the former, a natural counterpoint to the news of lament: floods, war, business fraud, and political shenanigans that fill the airwaves. The poems often speak to what Paul Muldoon calls “the conditions of joy,” a condition much underrepresented in the news and, it could be argued, in contemporary poetry. Often the poems are very funny, breaking down stereotypes that poetry has to be anguished and self-absorbed. Several poems look at the same experience from different angles and perspectives: for example, there are two poems that deal with the wisdom offered by a child to passengers on a jumbo jet flight. There are several poems about birth and several birthday poems; more than one poem takes place in a garden or graveyard; there are several praise poems to the body. There are poems about work, play, music, love, lovemaking, beginnings, endings, family, eating, drinking, gardening, shopping, spirituality, sports, legacies, naming, aging, politics, art, culture, city life, country life, travel, history. There are songs, odes, sonnets, instructions, litanies, prayers, lullabies, tributes, diatribes, blues, catalogues, praise-songs, and laments. All of the poems are marked by a deep attention to the world, be it attention to memory, music, emotion, or thought. They each have a pulse, a unique physical and spiritual presence, located in the school of the five senses, comfortable more with questions than answers, finding meaning in gaps, remnants, and silences as they traverse ad infinitum the commonplace, the other unnamable place, and that mysterious place in between.
In his great poem “Leaves of Grass,” Walt Whitman writes about America’s “Athletic Democracy,” a democracy fueled by a deft, precise, agile imagination, with the ability to shift, spin, leap; to contain contradictions and multitudes. A democracy in which Whitman warned us to resist much, obey little. A democracy that is not based on conformity, but rather on unity through acknowledgment and celebration of difference. This ideal is at the heart of this collection.
Our greatest national illness is our isolation: an isolation that breeds fear, forcing us to live a life deprived of real intimacy. Fear breeds more fear, and the longer we live in isolation, the more we are vulnerable to the wiles of power-mongers and the more we are willing to engage in group-think, making sweeping generalizations about our neighbors. Poetry cuts through this isolation, as particular voices speak from particular backgrounds and experiences, refusing to generalize on the human experience.
I hope readers come to these poems with an openness, and can let go of trying to dissect or overanalyze. Instead, enjoy the surprising images and music of the imagination at play. To experience that music, read the poems out loud to yourself, to a friend, stranger, lover, or your dog. Try to feel comfortable with ambiguity, with not having all the answers, as did Keats, who advocated the concept of negative capability: to be able to live with uncertainty, mystery, doubt, without reaching after fact and reason.
Or what the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca calls “Duende: a mysterious power which everyone senses and nobody explains.”
The first poem in this book starts with a journey—Quincy Troupe’s poem “Flight,” taking us high above California’s Pacific coastline—and the book ends with a journey, Elizabeth Spires’ poem “On the Island,” with a ferry pulling out into the Atlantic Ocean. In between there are many journeys across the terrains and frequencies of the human comedy, journeys into foreign countries that you have known since birth, where the fun is in getting lost and in being found. A trip that is both familiar and new, where the extraordinary becomes ordinary and vice versa. Please think of this book as an invitation, an imaginative challenge to respond, a taking off point, a meeting place, and a conversation.
“Stranger, if you’re passing me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you?”
-- Walt Whitman
Excerpted from Word of Mouth by Catherine Bowman. Copyright © 2003 by Catherine Bowman. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.