I Do Not Believe in Sorrow. It is not AAmerican.
BY PHILIP LEVINE
This harpie with dry red curls
talked openly of her husband,
his impotence, his death, the death
of her lover, the birth and death
of her own beauty. She stared
into the mirror next to
our table littered with the wreck
of her appetite and groaned:
Look what you’ve done to me!
as though only that moment
she’d discovered her own face.
Look, and she shoved the burden
of her ruin on the waiter.
I do not believe in sorrow;
it is not American.
At 8,000 feet the towns
of this blond valley smoke
like the thin pipes of the Chinese,
and I go higher where the air
is clean, thin, and the underside
of light is clearer than the light.
Above the tree line the pines
crowd below like moments of the past
and on above the snow line
the cold underside of my arm,
the half in shadow, sweats with fear
as though it lay along the edge
And so my mind closes around
a square oil can crushed on the road
one morning, startled it was not
the usual cat. If a crow
had come out of the air to choose
its entrails could I have laughed?
If eagles formed now in the
shocked vegetation of my sight
would they be friendly? I can hear
their wings lifting them down, the feathers
tipped with red dust, that dust which
even here I taste, having eaten it
all these years.
I see that labeling schools and movements is a convenience for critics and readers, but when I look at, say, Ginsberg and Snyder — two poets I really love — I don’t see that they have a hell of a lot in common.Maybe a certain spirituality …Yeah, you’re right — the influence of Eastern religion.But that doesn’t have much to do with style.No, they’re very different. Allen comes so directly out of Whitman, and Gary comes so directly out of Asian poetry and Kenneth Rexroth. There’s such an attention to natural detail and quiet movement in Snyder’s work, and there’s such marvelous rhetoric and bombast in Ginsberg’s best work — and also an enormous play of wit that you don’t find in Snyder. I think they’re both marvelous poets.There’s been such an emphasis recently on reading poetry aloud. Listening to some of the old recordings of modernist poets — I guess some of the earliest recordings we have of poets reading — they sound so markedly different from how people read today. Was there a moment when people started reading differently? Was it the Beats in the fifties?No. Here in America it was one poet — one poet changed everything. And curiously enough it was an English poet: Dylan Thomas. He came to the States and read with a fluency and ease and drama and power that nobody on the American scene commanded. I mean, William Carlos Williams was a terrible reader, for example. Wallace Stevens was pretty good, but he kind of droned on. e. e. cummings was a good reader. Edna St. Vincent Millay sounded hysterical — as though her foot were in the oven and she were calling for the fire department. Mostly the readings were overly dramatic or hyperbolic — or else they were just boring. When I heard W. H. Auden I hardly knew what he was saying. He was such a terrible reader — and he was drunk….Did you ever hear Pound read?Only on records. Oh, very dramatic, with that screwball accent he had.Do you think there’s a relationship between the way poets were reading and the way they wrote? Did Dylan Thomas actually influence people that way?Thomas had an incredible impact on American poetry. If you were to go back and look at Poetry magazine in the fifties — when he was here in the States every season making money by giving readings — you would discover that suddenly urban poets who had been writing about things like anti-Semitism and smog and overcrowding, and writing socialist poems, were suddenly out watching owls. Off in the distance are hay rakes, and farmers are burning the trash from last year, and planting season is coming — I mean, these poems are coming right out of Manhattan! They invented a whole landscape — and then they stopped. Thomas died, and everybody went back to what they were doing before.I heard Thomas read several times and was hypnotized by him. But I was very young at the time, and I realized that in order to write like that there was a lot I was going to have to learn to be able to control the line so beautifully and to get that resonance that he had in his writing. And, of course, a lot of his poems are terrible. He could read the phonebook and make it sound terrific. At the end of his career he was largely just imitating himself, which was sad to see.You touch on a good point: the difference between performance and actually writing poetry.I don’t think that performance has helped American poetry. I really don’t. I think a number of American poets have almost ruined their careers by going out and getting that kind of attention — going from campus to campus and being sort of awe-inspiring for an hour and a half, and feeding on the adulation. The process of writing poetry depends on being alone in a room, and being comfortable being alone for long periods of time — almost reveling in solitude and slow time. I’ve had friends tell me, younger poets, that when they came back from their early reading tours they’d get very depressed. I guess they were waiting for applause as they picked up pen and pencil. But there is no applause.
I have to admit, I am ashamed and sometimes feel like a bit of a cunt because, deep in my heart of hearts, I feel self righteously superior to slam poets (and most performance poets.) This coming from someone who makes no qualms about her deep ties to sound poetry, someone who lOVES eminem. and anything coming from someone like eminem. but gosh, Ginsberg and his ilk– their mock-able showmanship and social climbing…the easiness of winning the emotions of a crowd by yelling rhythmically and going crazy horse eyes. it really annoys me. I don’t mean to look down upon it. but I do. And I know am fucking influenced by it. I’ve sat and I can still sit mesmerized by the work of a slam/performance poet. I spent my hours with Ginsberg and etc. Preferred Sunflower Sutra to Howl. I am BY NO MEANS immune to the charm of the performance and wanting to give a big fat fucking rockstar performance. HELL NO am I immune. and I genuinely love Bukowski and Ferlinghetti (although they’re not exactly beats anyway…. soo… maybe they don’t count.) So what’s wrong with me? I think Philip Levine handles issues of the performance poetry genre quite well in the snippet posted above. MOVING ALONG… to the most interesting part of the interview (in my opinion.)
There’s a great irony in all of this, of course …That’s what I live by.In your essay “The Poet in New York in Detroit,” in The Bread of Time, you write about the influence of Keats and of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. You give Lorca credit for enabling you to write a poem like “They Feed They Lion,” a response to the Detroit riots of 1967. How has politics informed your poetry over the years? Have you ever found it difficult to reconcile poetic beauty and ugly political truth? No. Let’s put it this way: I think that in twentieth-century poetry the beauty is found in the fullness of the expression, and the degree to which the poet is able to capture, through detail and rhythm, a particular scene — for example, in a poem like Robert Lowell’s “The Mouth of the Hudson,” a beautiful little poem about a hideous landscape. Or, say, in Hart Crane’s “Repose of Rivers” — he also has a river, the Mississippi, running into the sea in this gorgeous ecstatic moment when the river loses its identity by becoming one with the gulf. They’re marvelous scenes, but what makes them marvelous is the degree to which they’re captured, and not what the actual condition of the world was that inspired that poem.
As for Keats, I think he inherited an aesthetic that only allowed him to write about lovely things. Whereas Lorca inherited an aesthetic that allowed him to write about anything — even what he didn’t understand. And that was one of the wonderful things that I got from him, and later got from Pablo Neruda — the idea that you could go after these very powerful centers of feeling in you, even if you couldn’t parse them.
And these powerful feelings might be political feelings?
Yeah. They might be rage. Lorca’s Poet in New York is really at its best a book of rage — of confusion. He doesn’t understand what the hell New York is, he hates the sense of its commercial enslavement. He’s a rural guy faced with the most industrialized and mechanized island in the world, and he’s confused and enraged and, of course, bitterly lonely and isolated. And he writes a great book — the best book of poems ever written about New York City. There’s one particular poem, the one that I quote in that essay, called “New York: Office and Denunciation,” in which you just hear that surging anger. It was a poem I read when I was very young and it just stayed with me, and I kept saying, “This is the avenue, this is the avenue. I’ve got to stop trying to be so rational about what I can’t be rational about.”
For me, the politics never come in very directly. They usually enter in through the characters and the story. I would never sacrifice the character — the person who I felt something for — for the politics. If this beautiful guy happens to own Sears, so be it. I’m not going to make him a farm worker just to make a point.
Got lost getting back from my cousins apt one evening and after an hour of walking, decided to sit my cold ass down and call a cab. while waiting for a cab, this happened:
Learning How to Bargain
The night was almost over. it had not made good on its promise of length, cool and still and blue– sold the glitter of its burning stars at a bargain to the burning whore on the corner of James street whose habit was to deal pet names and dreamy anachronisms like flying aces and flick true aces into the gutter, because, held so close for so long, they had begun to burn. Her knees creaked as she walked but she kept walking the long streets looking for a roundabout or a dead end where she could curl up and die in hiding. laid to a certain rest, but not going gentle for long. Sleep was a waste of the good night and it was a time of economic doom and waste not want not and all that.
As she walked she couldn’t help but think of the time great grandmother Dorothea (DeeDee to her) had made a scene begging all the children to drink the milk dregs of their honey toasted cheerios breakfast. The parents whispered that it was A Depression Thing. How they snickered. And the milk looked so disgusting in the bowl, she laughed with them laughing at the old bag. She couldn’t help but think now she would give even the precious pinky toe nail from her mangled leather-tramp foot for a sweet sip of that same honey toasted milk.
But DeeDee was a decade dead. And she herself, a decade older, haggard young thing complete with tits. Things changed. Besides, DeeDee’s breath had reeked like a dead mouse and her kisses were hell. She and the other children could never miss them. Thats all she thought of at that funeral. The stench of a kiss. The cost of accepting one. How glamorous the death was to think about even as she admitted her indifference to this particular one.
The night grown old eked the dregs of itself onto her face and she lapped it up. Barely tired, she fell asleep standing up. Woke neck deep in ice. couldn’t tell if she was in a bathtub or on the side of a snowy side walk. It didn’t matter. The sky was gone. And she couldn’t feel her legs that had taken her thus far with many complaints.
English had always been difficult but sometime in the past 37 hours her tongue had frozen over. The last time she’d spoken up it had been to buy cigarettes. Not camels, marlboros, “Yeah. That’s what I said.”
Perhaps it was cotton mouth, not a frozen tongue, that kept her from piping up because that bum was standing on her toe and it really hurt. She croaked, and he leapt up, stunned by the sudden appearance of a limb. She’d had to learn quick how to blend into the city since she leaving home. It was bad for an increasingly drab complexion but good for business. Business was booming.
She bought moonlight at a steal, cut it up, and was selling little bits of the horde mixed with piss snow to the acidheads on 5th at inflated cost. The price was a good story for a pull. She preferred nightmarish wheezings but valued the droning angel visions for their worth. The transcriptions had become a volume so heavy, every evening she took a piece of clothing from her bursting suitcase and gave it to the bluest of the freezing street kids. After 4 months acting the survival technique, it was the longest game of strip poker she’d ever played. She appeared corporeal, now ragged and almost naked. But the haul got heavier no matter what she pealed off and left behind. a shoelace, a bra, a sweater, gloves, hair clip, harp, lip balm, parka. She didn’t miss them. Her back ached or she was cold, it didn’t matter. She had the treasure.
Her resistance to the cold was growing. By the end, she thought she might ease herself into petrification like some holy relic, baby mammoth or iceman. Leave behind the record of herself, a body and stories stolen from a thousand frying children who’d once found themselves at her mercy, begging for a bargain on dregs of what they already had whole at home. Somebody would find them buried beneath newspaper mulch and an iron bench. Put it all behind glass. Get rich.
and…pose! for halloween and such. outfit worn to cake-aroke last tuesday. why do I love cake-aroke so?? I have no idea. well, I have an idea. the people watching is out of this world and the singers are hysterical. until they are whiskeyed up and screechy. and then it is painful but still funny somehow. (probably because, I too, am infused with whiskey by that point.) also= best whiskey cider drinks EVER is another reason to like the vegan cake-aroke shindig. seriously. for bad asses with a sweet tooth. which is me. or what i want to be. or me. or whatever. or something. i am hipsterafying with my blase (imagine theres a little tilde accent thing on top of the e of the blas and we’re all set for spelling and sense.)
Devision; Family Man and The Plan:
Leaving is where my art lies. It forbids
home as though the house itself were the plague.
Elsewhere’s tomb, bloom stung by mating aphids.
The expansive sea makes the mountain beg
for crumble. I smelled the shit smell of home
and begged for a drink of vodka mango.
I saw my mother puckered, wielding the comb,
she tore my knotty hair with finger tango–
love violence. and now I hate my mother.
How predictable. I am twenty two.
Hate my father and every single other
subdued rage,”perfect child” list of taboos.
spared no ruse. drank as much booze as I could.
who wouldn’t, infused as I was with such bad blood?
The child is a dud. no good cunt would do such
a rotten thing to someone who gives her so much
love. food. derision.
Don’t Assume Anything written is me. its not me or about me. just shit Im writing drawn from influences/inspiration/mybrain/life , love, and all those things