On Poetry

National Poetry Month: Zach Savich

By posted at 5:01 am on April 3, 2009 0

Zach Savich’s first book of poems, Full Catastrophe Living, won the 2008 Iowa Poetry Prize. He has recent work in Denver Quarterly, Kenyon Review, notnostrums, Bat City Review, and the anthology Best New Poets 2008. You can read an interview with him here.

A line of poetry by Zach: “I am made of feelings and toys.”

Singing School: How Poetry’s Music Knows

1. O Fret Not

It is spring and I am thinking of John Keats. “O fret not after knowledge,” he says (well, ever the ventriloquist, Keats has a thrush say it), “I have none, / And yet my song comes native with the warmth.”

I love that this “O” is closer to weariness than to rapture. And, each year more convinced that ideas are only so many words, I love its version of going native. Cells spread with warmth. The few notes we have, our recurring emotive range, come together once more, song leading to little but more singing.

Marsyas, flayed after challenging Apollo in music – I want to hear the song he played then, scabs grown into calluses. Did that flaying kill him? What if it did?

Sarah Manguso: “The kind of music I want to continue hearing after I’m dead is the kind that makes me think I will be capable of hearing it then.”

2. On the Difference Between Poetry and Prose

I write poems because I believe that most explanations merely describe; you can sum explanations up as “we made explanations.” Ditto stories. Every story can be reduced to “a story was told about it.” Stories and explanations can give you knowledge, but where does knowledge get you?

I’m not speaking against intelligence but on behalf of the rigors of warbling. “Nor is there singing school but studying / Monuments of its own magnificence,” writes Yeats. “Consume my heart away; sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal / It knows not what it is.”

Rarely is what we already know how to say worth saying, for we know not what we are. For poets, the music of language casts out toward dark coasts like lighthouse beams do, like a bat’s echolocating clicks. In the darkest zones, our instruments of knowledge are useless, having come from floodlit labs, yet one can sing out – who’s there?

The note that follows is not random. It is an answer. It reveals the shape of my prerequisite lungs.

Poems break into song as days break into rain. What’s the difference between poetry and prose? Prose is the sidewalk, poetry is the rain. “Oh, cut to the chorus,” writes New Zealand poet Sam Sampson. Lyric poetry is that impulse. We are on an awkward first date. We are fighting in the car. A song comes on the radio and we pause to turn it up. You are on your way to your beloved and hear the cry of peacocks. Or is it the hemlocks? O, fret not…

My friend asks, “If you could sing like Otis Redding would you still write poems?”

3. A Taxonomy of Singing

It is spring. I want to say: forget MFA programs (I’m in my second one) and the glossy craft industries’ self-help circuits, which can offer a medicine ball when you need a medicine man; forget perfection; forget the vanity that asks if poetry can matter rather than seeing poetry as matter itself, which can save you. Want to write a poem? How about, be moved to honest song, as a singer is, as the dancer listening is moved, and follow what this honesty necessitates.

I mean “honesty” in a sense neither terrible nor inspirational.

Honest not to what we know but to what the language knows. To how the world around us orchestrates. World neither trite nor impenetrable but hopelessly absorbing. Galway Kinnell: “The self is the least of it.”

But, Poet, what forms can your singing take?

Pure Song

La la la. Signals a state of mind purling into a state of being. See Roethke. See hey nonny no.

Interrupted Song

La la la mother. Signals trauma, mind breaking into being. Lear garbling but daughters break in.

Pure Interruption

Mother mother mother. Lament, dirge. Caliban distressed. Beckett? Stein? The broken mind fallen into horrid order.

There’s some knowledge for you, in spite of myself. Does it earn me some warmth? Are you now wondering what my thigh feels like? Will you put your hand on my throat to feel my song? Will you put your teeth there?

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