|I didn’t intend to be a poet until I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti in City Lights Bookstore when I was eighteen. I read “A Coney Island of the Mind” the day I met him. I was anxious because I’d just learned that he was moving out of North Beach to a house somewhere near Twin Peaks. I asked him why he was selling out. He told me that his wife was sick and tired of eating off of orange crates.|
By then Ferlinghetti was the godfather of the Beat Movement. He’d published Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl,” the poem that changed American poetry forever, and I guess he had a right to get out of the push and pull of Chinatown.
It was later when I told that story to a friend that he said, “You ought to write poetry.” So I did.
I was lucky. Before I wrote, I met people who told me that I had to read. Everything. And that meant everything from “Gilgamesh” to Kerouac’s “Mexico City Blues.” Somewhere in there, I tried my hand at it and got a poem called “Ode to Kepler.” You can see by the title that I was still locked up in history and had not yet gotten to Pound and the Imagists. I had not yet gotten to Jack Moodey.
I had gotten to the place where fast was not an option but breathlessness was—lay down the lines like they were music, don’t give the reader time to think or even pause for a breath. Lay down the lines so fast and hard they lock the reader up in a jacket of rime and meter. I believed that if you got them, the readers, riding the mythic wave, they couldn’t get off and that became the basis of my poetics, even though I didn’t know it at the time.
In the reading, you learn to imitate what you read. You think that what you read is the way you have to write and I did that—I imitated everything from Shakespeare to Homer, from Homer to Wordsworth, and none of it was any good. I hadn’t yet figured out poetry. I hadn’t figured out how to wed the mythic wave to anything else—and then I crossed into Jack Moodey territory.
It was a chance thing—it was summer, I was going to Cal in the fall. My roommate was a guy named Jim Ashford who worked summers at the Blue and Gold Liquor Store in Sanger. Every other day, Jack Moodey came there to buy a fifth of Christian Brothers Brandy and a carton of Old Golds because Jack had the writer’s disease—he craved alcohol and cigarettes. Jim told Moodey that I was a poet and Moodey, gentle man that he was, invited me out to his place in Centerville.
I took along a bottle of Riesling and we drank it and three others that day. I finally understood something—pain doesn’t always have a name. I asked Moodey why he drank and he told me he couldn’t remember why. He just did.
That fall, at Cal, I met Thom Gunn, who was teaching poetry. In his class, I met David Bartine. David was a very good but derivative poet, who like me was busy copying every conceit any poet ever dreamed up. Gunn held us up after class one day. He told us we’d be better poets if we didn’t imitate the masters. He said that if you live in another man’s universe, it will always be smaller than the one you create for yourself.
Put that together with the truth that Moodey told me when I asked him if he’d ever written an epic poem—(thinking, as I was, of Orlando Furioso, Jerusalem Delivered, The Song of Roland, Beowulf, The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid) and his answer came like a hammer to the head: “Six lines or eight?”—and you have the formula for the next phase of the mythic wave— assimilate, incorporate, take what is there but make it your own.
After Gunn and Moodey I understood more about the art and the craft, but I was still a long way away from being a poet.
In Moodey, I saw a poet who had come to his line very early. Even now I can feel it more than hear it:
Up to the very quiet edge of death
Along five highways of converging air
The senses come like evening cattle home
And they meet there.
After that, the idea of a poem underwent a sea change in my mind—a poem was a set of lines. It was the job of the poet to find his best line and make everything else as good—that’s the challenge. That led to a bigger problem— how do you know a line is good? What are the landmarks of a good line? What makes a line a line of poetry and not a line in a story?
That question lay unanswered for me for thirty years. I did not know the heart of poetics.
Satori, this book that took my entire life to put together, is the closest I can come to an answer. I see the whole book and every poem in it as the working out of the endless possibilities of the line. In the end, I came back to the Imagists—Pound, H.D., Amy Lowell, Jack Moodey—who taught me that the essence of the poetic line is the image—not the metaphor, which decodes into a system of signs, but the hard, clear, limpid image, the incontrovertible image. Without the image, the poetic line is hollow. But the goal of our art from the cave paintings at Chauvet to the ’80s movie Blade Runner and on down has been to make art move.
The image, which is a mix of concrete nouns and apt coloring, cannot move without its verb. So the essence of the poetic line must be the union of the concrete noun that lets us see an object and the verb that sets the object in motion.
Our entire history as an artistic species is tied up in getting images to move. The poetic line, then, has this in common with the film script—images in motion.
When I understood that, I understood how to meld the mythic wave and its breathlessness with the image and the verbs. You have to take it down to that level to see how it all leads to the beat, and English is ideal because long ago the Anglo Saxon and skaldic poets knew that it was not strict meter that drove the line but the moving stress of the language. We are lucky to have this language that itself moves. Stress drives the line, not meter, that variable moving stress and this is the big thing—stress marries the music to the moving image.
The poetic line must be a moving image that sings. We have images in motion set to music—first the music, then the story—and a third element— the dance.
At last I understood a little bit about poetry and the poetic line. I owe that trace of understanding to Gunn and Moodey, to Pound and Ferlinghetti, to Góngora and Neruda, poets all who make images move and that is what we admire about them.
Now I see that we are not the sum of what we read and imitate. We are the result, as poets, of the language we speak with its beauty of sound and stress, of rhythm and beat, of cadence and rubato, all of which give us the infinite possibilities of the line.
Satori, as a book of poems, chronicles (I love that word, chronicles, that takes us back in time) my poetic journey into an awakening of the inner art that drives the language. Along the journey, which was as immense as any odyssey, I have met men and women who taught me what they knew, and I am indebted to them.
I am indebted to Toby Bertram, who at eighteen wrote one of the most memorable lines I know:
And now we are what we used to wonder would we be.
I have learned that it is not always the best known poet or the prize winning poet who gives the pilgrim the insight—it is now and then that rare writer who, perched on the edge of night breaks open the shell of darkness to show us what lies over there. In Satori I am now what I used to wonder would I be. With Satori I think I am close to being a poet. I cannot yet say that I have taken my best line and made everything just like it, but I can say that I have written this:
Despite the cult of youth, we know this—
flowers fade, we come to the closing of doors
where we lie down naked for the dying of dreams.