Poetry Is For Reading Part 1 – An Explanation. Etheridge Knight.
Yes, it is grand to study a poet, to examine the mechanics, to see how the machine works, to admire technical brilliance and the resonance of influence and allusion. Yet I, like many readers, sometimes just want to enjoy poems the way I enjoy TV, a novel, a comic book or a new cd.
Poetry, like all of these mediums, comes with the risk that if you just dive in – you’re going to sink into limitless depths of banality, rubbish, or things you just don’t like. TV is an evil glowing devil box full of people trying to get famous and comic books are for kids. But we, the discerning ones, we know better. We find Mad Men. We know Brian Michael Bendis‘ run on Daredevil. We share these things amongst us as part of, and perhaps as measure of, our enjoyment of them. We pass DVDs of The Wire to each other, make mix tapes. We don’t de-construct or analyse. We get excited.
Many months ago my friend Morgan asked me to recommend some newer books of poetry to him. Books I had gotten excited about. Sure, he’d read what he’d had to read in school and had gone through some classics at his own pace but felt he had no foothold on more current work. Somehow we got side-tracked, however, talking about insane things Mike Tyson has said and I’ve felt guilty ever since for allowing the conversation to degrade and for not giving him a thorough list of readable books.
The troubling thing is that there is a lot of accessible poetry out there. Poetry that doesn’t require one to be a poet nor a scholar. Poetry that sparks and crackles and is as good as the new Decemberists album. But, there are an awful lot of books in that dusty cannon, ones taken like pills or praised by people who never liked AC/DC, or are simply competent or technically proficient.
In reading a New Yorker article about two of my recent poetic obsessions, Matthew and Micheal Dickman, Joseph Millar said, “They talked about poetry the way that young people used to speak about rock and roll, or surfing, or cars.”
Now, I’m not going to compare poetry to rock and roll or surfing but, in this little series, I intend to gush. I’ll recommend books to sit down and drink a beer with, poets you may or may not have heard of whose work you can ingest like your favourite cd, work you’ll want to share with your friends, books you might want to read all of, borrow or buy.
Of course, these are just my opinions based on my own travels, my interests and peccadilloes. Everything is individual, but please let me know if I switch you onto anything that you like. Similarly, feel free to share your opinions with me.
I’ve already gone on too long talking about the conceit of this concept and now, nervously, recommend a poet:
Knight found his way onto my love-shelf thanks to Michael Burkard who gave me a cassette of a Knight reading. I knew nothing of Knight beyond his threadbare voice on that cassette. I learned from his poems that he’d been incarcerated at Indiana State Prison, that he was African-American, and was addicted to heroin. His voice sounded lived in and just about on the right side of cozy. His poems were rhythmic, brutally sensitive, funny, and honest. His poem Hard Rock Returns To Prison From The Hospital For The Criminal Insane had the eerie feel and humour of One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest.
You can hear him read it hear at about 1.30 minutes in:
And then he read what is just about one of my favourite poems. It has a vulgarity to it, sure, but it has a cut and beating heart too.
Feeling Fucked Up
by Etheridge Knight
Lord she’s gone done left me done packed / up and split
and I with no way to make her
come back and everywhere the world is bare
bright bone white crystal sand glistens
dope death dead dying and jiving drove
her away made her take her laughter and her smiles
and her softness and her midnight sighs—
Fuck Coltrane and music and clouds drifting in the sky
fuck the sea and trees and the sky and birds
and alligators and all the animals that roam the earth
fuck marx and mao fuck fidel and nkrumah and
democracy and communism fuck smack and pot
and red ripe tomatoes fuck joseph fuck mary fuck
god jesus and all the disciples fuck fanon nixon
and malcolm fuck the revolution fuck freedom fuck
the whole muthafucking thing
all i want now is my woman back
so my soul can sing
There is a bio and a selection of poems available at poetryfoundation.org
·You can find Etheridge Knights work at the Scottish Poetry Library in The Vintage book of African American Poetry.
·You can buy the Essential Etheridge Knight (University of Pittsburgh Press) here.
·Read about another poet – Hayden Carruth.
·Cartoon by Dan Meth. My voice is in it.