The four poets sat in a row in front of microphones, Lyn Hejinian the language poet, on the far left. She began by saying in her high girlish voice, “Here we are in a row, I must be “A”. Kay Ryan piped up quite promptly “And I must be “Z”. Chortles all around. We knew where the two poets stood on the meaning, or lack of meaning, in poetry, especially when it comes to language.
Hejinian read examples of what she thought of as showing wild and strange language. (No poet would like to be accused of using tame and ordinary language, she said.)
First came Robert Grenier, from his book “Sentences“, available online.
She may or may not have read this:
he barks at things gone by
ashes to ashes
looking at the fire
at has been added
Hejinian champions the use of language in an aesthetic sense.
Padgett ruminated on his childhood a bit, thought of how language is enjoyed sometimes without meaning necessarily. Children like to repeat sounds over and over again until they are drained of meaning and remembered as something else, something coming in to the ear. He also enjoyed discovering the concrete poets, the wild poets whose works contain pure sounds and playful shapes on the page. Later, he pointed out that William Carlos Williams’ poems in Spring and All were electrifying. The red wheelbarrow poem said it so plainly. Padgett is charming and funny, and full of plain spoken truths, with a childlike simplicity that is seductive.
Phillips handed out a leaflet with two poems : on one side from Laura Jensen, “Heavy Snowfall in a Year Gone Past,” which ends with the moon looking down and judging,
Wasted, wasted, the birds crackle,
wasted on you.
There was also a deeply erotic beautifully structured poem by John Wieners, “Anniversary”.
The diction changes mid line
Cigarette between his lips, would they were mine
by this present moon swear allegiance
if he ever look, see clouds and beaches
in the sky, by stars lend his eyes shine.
Kay Ryan had brought this poem by Robert Frost. She asked if we received the handout. When there was an awkward silence, she replied, “I didn’t bring one.”
A Dust of Snow
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
What excited Ryan was how poetry could change a person. The person in the snow was not in a good place, and as a result of the snow falling on him, had entered a new mood. Such simplicity, and tight little form has the power to create a feeling.
Hejinian challenged that poetry did not have to do that, that was too restrictive.
“Restrictive!” cried Ryan.
And so Poet A and Poet Z laid out their positions. It was an argument we could have used more of. But it was enough for me to understand the difference between Hejinian’s point of view about poetry, that it should have as much breadth and range and abstraction and freedom as jazz or a Jackson Pollock painting, and Kay Ryan who wants her poems to have words with meaning. With no meaning, you have no power, she claims, and I agree.