THESE ARE MY GREATEST HITS
Lines of poetry were my first way of staking a claim on this elusive form –perennial favorites replaced my own attempts to describe situations and feelings and were muttered at pithy moments or scribbled in or onto journals, adolescent artworks, letters, love notes, articles of clothing. “Our Masterpiece is the Private Life,” the title of a Mark Strand poem, or “Thank you. You are a very pleasant person” which concludes John Ashbery’s “My Erotic Double,” were a kind of pre-karaoke –a way of saying something emotionally true about life, just better than my own non-existent stock of originals.
These lines were often directives: Jorie Graham’s “This is the heat that seeks the flaw in everything / and loves the flaw” describes the infernal St. Louis heat long before I knew it and spoke to the hot friction of error that is the most salient way of describing love and transgression at once. Frequently this personal mix tape of lines was distributed broadly: Frank O’Hara’s “You’re Gorgeous and I’m Coming” was stamped onto hundreds of tiny scraps of paper and strewn across all available surfaces of a school I attended; Strand’s “Precious Little” made its way onto one year’s edition of hand-made Valentines. Maybe these culled and re-written lines were all love notes –to a world I failed to adequately communicate with, to a far greater depth of personality than I possessed. And this is still the case. Song lyrics can fulfill this urge for a cri de coeur –music enchants– but nothing’s more powerful than a fact, or an unlikely series of words that feels, defiantly, like one, as poetry crafts.
Direction, that’s what I look for in poetic lines; I want poetry to tell me what to do. Frost’s “Back out of all this now too much for us” says more about metaphysical immobilization than all of clinical psychology. Berryman’s “We must not say so” makes the perfect follow-up for just such an observation. And I can’t say it’s possible to disagree with the febrile logic of Ginsberg’s “It occurs to me that I am America. / I am talking to myself again.” There’s the point: poetry’s linguistic gumminess plus ear-worm stickiness renders it incontrovertible –non-polemical, seductive, full of perfectly true non-facts. Eliot’s lament, “That is not it at all. That is not what I meant at all,” is a superior cliche, a most sophisticated pop refrain, something better to fill one’s mind than the common swarm of lesser ruminations. My favorite lines construct a wiggly mandate for living. Yes, “How to Live. What to do,” please tell me –Wallace Stevens, poetry– in so many words.
(Title from Joshua Clover’s “The Map Room”)