I have always admired Anne Sexton’s “Her Kind.” It is as good and purposeful as the nib of a fountain pen sinking into a bloviating patriarch’s fleshy old fanny.
It starts off:
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
We are not in a classroom, so let’s forget about “the speaker” and imagine this is Sexton herself. Picture the glamorous Anne, her lovely blue eyes scanning a bunch of boring houses 10,000 feet below her. Alone and under cover of darkness, she is out on the town doing her hitch. Or rather, she has done her hitch; it is on her resume, and she’s not hiding it.
But who is that “lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind”? Why, it is still Anne, speaking in an arch tone as she puts on a pair of male gaze-goggles and then flings them aside.
“I have been her kind,” she confesses with the mind-bending solipsism of a true sorceress.
The middle stanza amps up the weirdness:
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.
Honestly, can anyone read this aloud without laughing? And yes, “A woman like that is misunderstood,” but this one is so deep into parody she can’t be bothered to care.
On to the final stanza, which finds our heroine defiantly describing what she has done (not what has been done to her) in a male world intent on debasing and destroying her:
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
Like Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” Sexton-as-witch is an exhibitionist taking charge of her spectacle. She knows her tormentors will hyperventilate at the sight of her “nude arms” and get all queasy with delight when her thigh begins to burn.
She mocks them with each self-centering ‘I’ rhyme she throws down on the page. Swerving, swirling, she nevertheless speaks in a measured verse that approaches rhyme royal. She is that sure of herself even as her ribs crack. And notice that she never dies, quite.
To borrow a couple of lines from Emily Dickinson, she is “dying in Drama — / and Drama — is never dead –.”
And yet Sexton insists: “A woman like that is not ashamed to die.”
That line is a raised middle finger with a painted, pointed nail.
It clinches the poem; it is the truth of “Her Kind.”
I wish it had not been the truth of Sexton’s life, but I salute the courage it took for her to say what she said and live as long as she was able to stand being alive.
Godspeed, Anne! Let starlight split the black waves as you swim toward us again and again.
It is the middle of summer, the heart of the watermelon, and I’m sitting on a patio looking out at hills and cypress trees and listening to people splashing in a pool I’ll swim in later on. There are people in that pool murmuring in languages I don’t speak, but I can tell they’re happy. So am I–it would take an act of will not to be.
How does happiness happen? How does it happen to me? Do I need a pool and a patio and a white butterfly and just the right combination of breeze and Italian to strum the strings of my soul’s harp? Surely not! Maybe not. Um ….
Happiness comes and goes, and that’s OK with me. To poach a phrase from Wallace Stevens in “Sunday Morning,” I have no desire to live in a paradise where ripe fruit never falls. Happiness can and should be pursued, but sometimes the pursuit feels like an endless game of tag with Usain Bolt. On days like that, it’s better to leave Usain alone and just do your work, whatever that might be. If you don’t have any work, find some: mow the grass, change the litter box. Floss, whatever.
Often happiness is a remedy, a balm, a way out. And the balm, the escapism of it, can become a problem if you fixate on it. As a longtime student of the Beat Generation authors, many of whom played around endlessly with heroin and cocaine and blah, Benzedrine, blah, I’ve always prided myself on my complete disinterest in narcotics. Chocolate and/or wine will almost always suffice on good days and bad, thank you very much. But when I landed in the ER back in February, I was happy to make the acquaintance of morphine. I remember our one-night stand with great fondness. But: never again, if I can help it.
Happiness can bring tears, as it did two days ago when I stood at just the right place in the Uffizi Gallery and looked at Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and then at his Spring. There were hoards of tourists milling around me, but it was my moment nonetheless. I felt very large and very small at the same time. Maybe what happened to me in the Uffizi was not exactly the onset of happiness; maybe it was the pure joy of being human. And that is pretty damned good.
There was a time when doctors prescribed travel to people feeling melancholy. Why don’t they do that anymore? Why don’t they say, “Go on a trip, you slug-a-bed. Go to a museum in some place you’ve never been.” Even a trip to the next town over can pump up the dopamine. Or, if you are really, really depressed and unable to go far, take a stroll down the familiar aisles of Food Lion–or your own, fall-back supermarket. Just go.
In any case, here we all are–alive and breathing the air that inspirited saints and geniuses and rotten criminals and cats and dogs and rats for more centuries than I care to count. We must make something of this air, this day! If you hear a splash, that’s me!
I’ve often wondered about Robert Frost’s famous line, “I’d as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.” I know he was making fun of free verse, which he saw as a lawless waste of his time. But wouldn’t playing without a net actually be harder in some ways than the familiar version of the game? And if that is so, doesn’t it follow that writing a truly memorable free verse poem might be more challenging than writing one in traditional meter and rhyme?
For thoughts on this matter and insights into the marvelously crustaceous Frost, I turned to poet and scholar Henry Hart, whose new biography, The Life of Robert Frost, is just out from Wiley Blackwell. “Frost was constantly making wisecracks about free verse poets playing tennis with the net down,” said Hart, a professor of English at the College of William and Mary.
Why did Frost act like free verse was so ridiculous? According to Hart, it was the poet’s way of thumbing his nose at his rivals Ezra Pound and Carl Sandburg, who in their different ways were expert writers of free verse. Frost “tried writing free verse when he was close to Pound in London, and it was prosaic. He knew writing good free verse was difficult—just as writing good formal poetry was difficult. He preferred writing formal poetry because he was a conventional guy, but he also felt he needed the restraint and challenge of form.”
As for Frost the tennis player, I learned that the author of A Boy’s Will and North of Boston had taken up the game as a teenager while working one summer in Maine. It became one of his favorite activities–so long as he won. Hart said, “He was certainly passionate about tennis, but he wasn’t all that good and, as in most things, he was almost pathologically competitive.”
Frost was so competitive that he became furious when his daughter Lesley beat him at the game. According to Hart, the Pulitzer Prize winner stormed off the court shouting, “My children think that because they’re the children of a poet, that gives them license! But what they don’t know or understand or appreciate [is] … I know more about the English language than any man alive.”
I couldn’t resist asking Hart, a longtime tennis player, his thoughts on tennis without a net. It turns out he agrees with Frost: “I suppose playing tennis with the net down or without the net would just be silly.” Still, he reminded me that the subject of his new biography was more concerned with poetry than tennis when making his remark: “Frost was emoting when he used the metaphor to mock free verse; he was just trash talking.”
Not quite done rallying back and forth on this topic, I decided to lob a few questions to several other tennis-playing writers in various genres.
In the case of William Pritchard, the eminent critic and author of Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, I wasn’t sure he played tennis, but something told me that the English professor emeritus at Amherst College had hit a few overhead smashes in his time. He was quick to write back that yes, indeed, he played tennis “until Old Age, etc.” As for playing the game without a net: “I can’t imagine what it would be like to play without a net. No fun, no restriction, what the hell can’t lose!”
Invited to contemplate net-free tennis, Boston-based novelist and short story writer Jessica Treadway responded an hour before she was scheduled to play a match–very much in keeping with her literary flair for timing and suspense. “I don’t think I’ve ever played without a net, but my immediate reaction to the idea of doing so has not to do with whether it’s harder or easier, but with whether I’d want to do it, and the answer is no. The analogy that came to mind was no-ad scoring, which I dislike. To my mind, it is not ‘real’ tennis.”
The author of Lacy Eye and How Will I Know You added, “I also wouldn’t want to do it because I’m used to having a net, and I like the game the way it is. I wonder if someone never having written poetry would prefer free verse because it does seem that it would be easier?”
Keith Clark, professor of English and African & African-American Studies at George Mason University, likewise nixed the idea of playing tennis without a net. Compared to the game he knows and loves, the netless version would be “infinitely dumber and less interesting, mind-numbingly less interesting, in fact.” The author of The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry and Black Manhood in James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines, and August Wilson makes time for tennis even during the busiest weeks of the semester at GMU.
As for Frost’s remark, the ever-erudite Professor Clark noted, “I think Frost’s comment speaks to his classical approach to the art of poetry, which eschews radical approaches to form. Not to say that he wasn’t aesthetically daring, but free verse to him seemed a bridge too far.”
Carol Henderson, author of Losing Malcolm and Farther Along: The Writing Journey of Thirteen Bereaved Mothers, made it clear that tennis without a net is not high on her to-do list. “You need the net to gauge distance, height, depth,” said this dedicated tennis player and writing workshop instructor, who secludes herself at home in Chapel Hill, N.C., to watch Grand Slam matches on a large-screen TV. “Playing or watching tennis without a net would be a waste of time.” What about Frost’s quip echoing in English classes across the land? “It’s not an apt metaphor.”
Finally, I turned to Philip Holland of Boston, novelist and author of one of my all-time favorite short stories, “Mentor,” about a club tennis pro trying to teach a singularly unpromising young boy how to play the game. He wrote, “Believe it or not, I have played a few times without a net, in those New England springs in my hometown before the nets went up and our team could officially practice. Here’s what I remember: without a net, the game is much easier on the person hitting the shot, and
much harder on the person receiving the shot. Perhaps you experienced the same, if you ever tried? The person hitting the shot, being much less constrained, could hit it lower and harder, and with all kind of crazy angles, or even lower and softer–and the person receiving had to deal with all that additional variability.”
With the philosophical turn of mind that makes his fiction so engaging, he continued, “I might say this, in response to Mr. Frost. Perhaps like tennis without a net, free verse too might be a bit easier for the author, as it is for the ‘author’ of the shot, but more difficult for the reader, as it is for the receiver of the shot, in that by removing the ‘constraints’ of form, rhyme, meter, etc., not unlike the net, it might free up the poet but make it more difficult on the other end to process his or her offering.”
Weighing all these observations, I suspect a tennis player of the caliber of Serena Williams would see a kind of “ghost net” even if no tangible net were there to guide her shots. She would know when she or her opponent hit the ball even an inch below the ghost net, and she would use her knowledge of the net, even in its absence, to play her best game. On a parallel note, various critics have written about the ghost of meter lurking within exemplary free verse. Truly expert free verse–for instance, the later poems by Adrienne Rich and just about everything by Lucille Clifton–makes use of meter (and rhyme) when it suits the needs of the poem. In short, Frost’s famous comment may say more than he realized about the subtle skills and awareness involved in writing free verse. Deuce point, Mr. Frost!
During times of upheaval, art of all kinds can offer solace and refuge. As an antidote to the horrors we are all grappling with these days, I recommend to you the life and writing of Harold Norse (1916-2009), an out gay man who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s. In this, his centennial year, let’s have a look at who he was and what he was all about.
The Brooklyn native was a smart, sexy guy with a winning smile. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1938 and later earned an M.A. from New York University. His elegant lyric poems received high praise from William Carlos Williams, who called him the best poet of his generation. First in Europe and then in San Francisco, Norse found his milieu among the Beat writers. His numerous books of poetry, his experimental novel, The Beat Hotel, and his memoir were published by both mainstream and small presses beginning in 1953.
Here’s Norse writing in Memoirs of a Bastard Angel (Morrow, 1989) about a letter he received from W.H. Auden:
Wystan had repeatedly said, and had written in a letter to me, ‘Live every moment as if it were thy last,’ quoting an Anglican hymn he had sung in childhood. And although the context of this line was religious, I could believe the thought without the religion. There was no other way to live. Certainly not if you were in your twenties and the most devastating war in history had just ended. I was lucky to be alive. I was lucky the government did not have room in its military machine for young men designated 4-F because of ‘feminine reactions.’
But Norse did fight during World War II–in New York City. One day on Eighth Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, he encountered a drunk beating up a peddler and hollering anti-Semitic epithets:
Nobody made a move to help the old man. The crowd’s passiveness and the helplessness of the old peddler at a time when millions of innocent Jews were being terminated in the gas chambers of Europe proved too much for me. I pushed my way forward through the throng and hovered a moment indecisively. Then, almost without my knowing it, my fist shot out of the crowd and the drunk went down, flat on his back, his head thudding on the asphalt. A cheer rose from the crowd, which began to disperse, many thanking me warmly, shaking my hand.
Norse was a man of many talents. In the late 1950s he arrived in Paris and soon began experimenting with cut-up writing, a technique that William Burroughs made famous. Norse was also painting:
I had begun painting at a suggestion from Julia Laurin. I threw colored Pelican inks at random on Bristol paper and washed them off in the bidet with startling results: a series of maplike drawings of outer and inner space in the most vivid colors and minutely precise details, as if they had been meticulously drawn by a master hand. Yet my hand never touched them. I allowed everything to happen, letting the laws of chance take over, acting as a medium through whom these colors, shapes, and designs would flow, dictated by whatever forces reside in the unconscious. With the feeling that I was charting new territory in the visual arts I worked compulsively, calling the results ‘Cosmographs’–cosmic writings. I was no draftsman, but I was an artist. When I showed them to Burroughs [… ] he was so enthusiastic that he wrote the introduction to my first one-man show, which opened a year later in March 1961 at the English Bookshop, 42, rue de Seine.
These are just a few glimpses of Norse, someone I knew little about until I became friends with Todd and Tate Swindell of San Francisco. The Swindell brothers have done a great deal to promote Norse and other San Francisco Beats who haven’t gotten the attention they deserve.
A writer and activist, Todd Swindell had admired Norse’s poetry for a long time before he began helping Norse around the house near the end of the poet’s life. After Norse died, Todd compiled his archives. He also took on the enormous task of editing I Am Going to Fly Through Glass: The Selected Poems of Harold Norse (Talisman House, 2014). Later this month, he will be presenting a talk, “Cut Out of the Cut Ups: Harold Norse at the Beat Hotel,” at the European Beat Studies Conference in Manchester, England. In July, Todd and Tate Swindell will host and participate in a series of discussion panels commemorating the centennial of Norse’s birth. For more info on these panels (two in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles), go to the Events page at haroldnorse.com.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Todd Swindell by email. Here’s what he had to say about his old friend Harold Norse.
What does Harold Norse add to the Beat Movement?
Harold adds a strong connection to Modernism to the Beat Movement. He was publishing in magazines like Poetry in the 1940s. When W.H. Auden arrived in the States, Harold was among the first Americans to connect with him, and he became Auden’s secretary. Harold also got to know Anaïs Nin, Dylan Thomas, and James Baldwin.
Without Harold, the Beats would not have such a rich international dimension. He lived in Paris in the late 1950s and traveled widely. We read often of New York City and San Francisco, but a great deal of the Beats’ influence came out of what happened in Paris, Tangier, and the Greek Islands, and Harold was part of that scene. Nor would we have had Harold’s magazine Bastard Angel, from the early 1970s, publishing a new generation of writers such as Andrei Codrescu and Neeli Cherkovski in the same pages as Bob Kaufman and Diane di Prima.
Where was Harold living when he was editing and producing Bastard Angel, and how long did it last? Where is it archived?
Bastard Angel magazine began shortly after Harold moved to San Francisco in 1971, inspired by the city’s poetry scene and its mixture of younger and older poets. Issue #3, the last one, came out in the fall of 1974. The mock-ups and other production material are archived at the Lilly Library at Indiana University. Harold sold them a part of his archives in the early 1980s. Most of his papers are housed at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.
How did Harold get along with Allen Ginsberg? Did they have much contact?
Harold met Allen in the winter of 1944, a week before Ginsberg met Kerouac. It was on a subway train, very early in the morning heading to Greenwich Village, when Allen entered the empty car wearing a red bandana around his neck, taking a seat opposite Harold. When the train’s rumble would quiet at each stop, Harold could hear the 18-year-old mumbling to himself while his head bobbed as if he were in a trance. Eventually he recognized “The Drunken Boat” being recited in French. “Rimbaud!” Harold shouted. “You’re a poet!” Allen replied. They went back to Harold’s apartment on Horatio Street and compared poems. The pair would have likely met later at parties or bars in the Village, but they were acquaintances more than friends, similar to Harold’s connection with Frank O’Hara.
There was a subtle rivalry between Norse and Ginsberg. In Harold’s Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, hementions the time Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky arrived in Paris in 1961 on their way to India. At a party filled with champagne and hashish, Peter pestered Harold to disrobe. After swigging and toking, he complied, but then Peter disappeared into the bathroom. Eventually most of the guests ended up in their birthday suits, as Allen sternly guarded the bathroom door. The whole story is well worth reading.
When I was gathering Harold’s archives, I found correspondence to Allen asking him for a letter of recommendation. Harold was trying to obtain a paid teaching position. Ginsberg replied he didn’t have time to comply and ultimately such a letter would not make a difference. In his defense, Ginsberg was inundated with such requests.
In Harold’s archives at Indiana University, there is a series of photographs by Gerard Malanga taken in 1973 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art during a poetry reading by John Ashbery. Allen and Harold were both in attendance wearing the colorful hippie garb of the day. You can see their bright smiles. As you know, Ginsberg was a talented photographer and he photographed Harold in the kitchen of his Mission District apartment in 1988. It is one of the most beautiful photos taken of Harold.
Did Harold have a workaday job, or was he able to earn a living as a writer?
Harold’s paid employment varied throughout his life. In New York City, he taught at colleges like Cooper Union. When he left for Italy in ’53, his finances were very strained. At first he worked dubbing English films into Italian and then taught English, on and off, for a couple years. During his years abroad, Harold was supported by a couple of patrons who were from wealthy families but lived frugally. This support was usually a vacant apartment or money for food—but only the bare necessities.
When Harold repatriated to California in 1969, he tried to obtain a regular teaching position but was systematically rejected by petty professors jealous of his time abroad. There was an image projected of Harold being too wild because of his poetry. In the 1980s he had some stints at a college in San Jose and at San Francisco’s New College. Harold scraped by his whole life, but of course he’d been doing that since he was a child. His parents were always leaving furnished rooms under cloak of night because they couldn’t pay the rent.
I read that he rearranged the letters in his surname, Rosen, to come up with Norse. Why did he do that? What was his attitude toward his Jewish heritage?
Like his hairpiece, Harold’s name change was something he never spoke of. According to his memoirs, Harold’s new name came from childhood readings in Norse mythology and because his mother’s family were Nordic Jews, blue-eyed blondes from Lithuania. Though his mother was suspicious of religions (and people), her siblings converted when they married spouses who were Catholic.
Harold embraced his Jewish heritage when the Nazis rose to power. Also, he saw how prejudice arose from baseless stereotypes whether it was blacks, queers, or Jews. For instance, Harold—muscular, hairy, butch—was never suspected of being queer. His swarthy complexion and upturned nose could have him pegged as anything from Italian to English to German.
What are some of the poems you especially admire in I Am Going to Fly Through Glass?
A selection of my favorite poems can change from day-to-day. For now…“Piccolo Paradiso” is a love poem for the ages. “Believing in the Absurd” is a snapshot of Harold’s time at the Beat Hotel. “California Will Sink” is a prophetic lamentation about global warming. “Remembering Paul Goodman” encapsulates the queer poetic geniuses of 1940’s Manhattan. “Let Go and Feel Your Nakedness” merges the lusty odes of Catullus with the liberating playfulness of James Broughton.
What were some of the challenges of compiling and editing this edition of selected poems?
My original idea was to photocopy a chapbook of Harold’s poetry and circulate it amongst friends, a stoking of the fire, as it were. I’d self-published a memorial chapbook of poetry from Harold’s friends like Ira Cohen, Mel Clay and Eddie Woods after he died in 2009. (Readers can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to purchase a copy.) It wasn’t until Neeli Cherkovski suggested a full-length collection that I set my sights higher, which meant going back and reading all the poems again.
The 2003 edition of Harold’s collected poems is comprehensive but poorly organized and needlessly repetitive. I wanted to illustrate the development of Harold’s poetic voice, mirrored by his world travels. Including photographs from Harold’s archives accented this progression. Neeli contributed a brilliant introductory essay that motivated me to include additional poems.
It was hard not to give up when publishers repeatedly turned down the manuscript. I was on the verge of self-publishing when Ed Foster from Talisman House came in with a wonderful offer to print 700 copies—considerably larger than the usual small-press poetry print runs.
Tell me a story about Harold Norse that only you would know.
Harold’s last years living alone in his cottage apartment in San Francisco were fraught with loneliness, compounded by lack of restful sleep. Though social by nature, he had become increasingly isolated. There was an element within his psyche which could often sabotage an opportunity.
Many folks who knew Harold longer than I have remarked on how he would perpetually kvetch about his work not being recognized. I was in my twenties when we first met and naively unaware of Harold’s role in that situation. I could only be supportive and enthusiastic. As far as I was concerned, the value of his work obviated Harold’s shortcomings.
One day, venting his woes, Harold expressed concern that he sounded paranoid. His complaint wasn’t specific to his poetry not getting the attention it deserved but more about the difficulty of not getting enough sleep and lacking money and companionship. The day before, I had been reading his City Lights collection Hotel Nirvana, which contains the poem “These Fears Are Real Not Paranoid.” I blurted out the title and Harold looked at me wide-eyed as I explained it was the title of one of his poems.
He was not convinced. I had him locate a copy of the book so I could read the poem aloud. When I was done, Harold had tears in his eyes. “I’m hearing this poem for the first time,” he said. “What do you mean?” I asked. “We are unable to see ourselves,” he replied, “That’s why I write poetry–for the reflection that comes from the reader.” It was then I begin to appreciate what my friendship offered Harold beyond housecleaning and conversation.
To read a selection of Norse’s poems published in Poetry magazine, click here.
On a country road not far from where I live, there’s a house I never notice except in the spring. Dozens of daffodils press against the front of this ragged little place. It looks abandoned, but the daffodils couldn’t care less. They are wildly happy the way daffodils always are, their gold faces drinking in the sun and sky.
Who planted them, I wonder, and when?
I dial back the years to 1950 or so and picture a young woman in calico with an apron full of bulbs. She kneels down in the light of a breezy September morning and gets to work. As her trowel pierces the red-clay earth, she thinks about her ailing mom or her husband’s upcoming birthday or a poem she would like to write if she can ever find time. She drops in the first bulb and keeps going down the row.
“I’ll have these to look at in the spring,” she tells herself.
She is sturdy and strong. A week after planting the bulbs, she learns she’s pregnant with her first child. The joy she feels flows out of her hands and hair and into the air around the little house. When the daffodils bloom, she is nearly eight months pregnant, big and round and eager to get on with things. Bending down to gather a bouquet, she laughs at herself when she nearly topples over.
The bulbs will replicate over time. She and her husband will have four babies in seven years; three will survive. The name of the oldest, the one growing inside her while she planted those bulbs, will be etched on a shining wall in Washington, D.C.
When the news of her son’s death arrives, the woman will be living far from the daffodils. She will be separated from her husband, angry at the world. It will be ages before she can laugh again.
But the time comes when the tight petals of her heart slowly open. She takes night classes, has grandchildren, helps a fragile friend. The years drift by.
One day a nurse at the doctor’s office comments on the beauty of her eyes and gives her hand a reassuring squeeze. She goes home, takes off her glasses, looks in the mirror: her eyes are as blue as the sky above Rapidan, Virginia.
It’s been a long time since she thought of that place. Something comes to her–a flickering of light, a rush of gold. Wasn’t there a poem she always meant to write, a few things she really wanted to say? She had meant to say them all these years.
The telephone rings: her granddaughter, on her way to take her to lunch.
She smooths her hair and sits down to wait. Outside the high windows of her apartment, a hawk flies by. It is a clear, calm day. The kitchen clock ticks. She rummages around in her purse for the notepad she uses for her grocery list.
The buzzer sounds just as she writes a single word, followed by a year. “It’s a beginning,” she thinks as she stands up and hurries to answer the door.
As an audience member, I approach poetry readings with mingled feelings of hope and dread. These occasions can be truly marvelous or unspeakably awful.
If a poetry reading has any hope of success, certain rules must be observed. The introduction must be brief and free of blather. The poet must be sober and mindful of the clock. The audience, too, must do its part: it should be unplugged, properly fed and caffeinated, and savvy enough not to clap after every darned poem.
If a reading is awful, it is, of course, the poet’s fault. The poet has talked too long between poems, used the ridiculous, sing-song “poet voice,” or announced at the beginning, “You can hear me without the microphone, right?” The people in the back want to scream: Use it! Use it! Use it! It’s not there just to look pretty! But there’s always some knucklehead in the second row who nods obligingly, and the dumb-show begins.
A good reading remains a tantalizing possibility. It’s sort of like birdwatching: when you see and hear an actual fire-veined poet in the flesh, your heart does backflips. You thank the stars you showed up. You are not blinking, and when you get home, you pace around for a while before you can settle down.
Of the countless readings I’ve attended over the years, these three poets stand out as the real deal:
Lucille Clifton, reading in her adopted hometown of Columbia, Md., in the early 2000s. Clifton, who died in 2010, was the rare poet who left audiences wanting more. On this occasion, she was on stage for no longer than 30 minutes, her half of a two-poet reading. Her poem based on the molestation she experienced as a young girl elicited gasps from the audience. It was not a slam poet’s self-indulgent shock poem; it was “moonchild,” a heartrending study in restraint, published in Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000. When she closed with “won’t you celebrate with me,” she changed the pronouns so her signature poem about an individual woman’s survival against the odds became a communal celebration of endurance. I was not the only one who wept. Clifton had that much grace, that much power.
Louise Glück, reading at the University of Virginia in 1980 or 1981. The packed auditorium fell into rapt silence as soon as Glück opened her mouth. Slim and elegant in a black dress, she read her poems, many from The House on Marshland, without a word of commentary. You didn’t have to be Helen Vendler to know this was a poet headed toward greatness. Glück, whose very cool umlauted name means “luck” in German, is a brilliant presence on stage.
Gwendolyn Brooks, reading at the Cambridge (Mass.) Public Library, in the late 1990s. The reading took place in a cramped space with not enough folding chairs for all the people who wanted to hear the eighty-year-old poet and leading voice in the Black Arts Movement. Tall and commanding and wearing a colorful turban, Brooks read beneath the glaring light of a local community-access TV station. She read old poems and newer ones, some in sonnet form and some in free verse. With perspiration trickling down her face, she was as fully alive and present in the moment as anyone I’ve ever seen. She died in 2000. When I close my eyes, I can still hear the applause rocking the Cambridge library as she took her final bow.