What is poetry's purpose? Windows to others' dreams


As a month devoted to poetry begins, there are trends afoot -- and eternal verities.

March 26, 2000|By Clarinda Harriss | By Clarinda Harriss,Special to the Sun

"Nothing's so boring as other people's dreams." Thus spake a poet I know. But poetry is other people's dreams. Dreams and poems are ways of packaging the past. Some packages deliver the goods more effectively than others. The best ones deliver the dreamer or writer's experience directly into your own. New books by some of contemporary poetry's major trend-setters illustrate my point.

You've heard a friend tell his dream this way:

I was dead

People were looking at me

It was

(like) WEIRD.

"You can't imagine how scary it was," your friend confides. Fact is, you can only imagine it -- you can't share it. The package doesn't deliver.

Sharon Olds tells it like this:

I will lie at the front of a church, in a box,

a kind of low, dirt altar,

I will be inside it, on my back, without

breath, without brain, And my friends

will come by, they will be only the grain

of the wood away ...

-- From "The Earth," in "Blood, Tin, Straw" (Knopf, 130 pages, $24)

Thirty lines later, readers are experiencing not only Olds' nightmare but also their own bony mortality, scared but far from bored. Like rocker Alice Cooper, Olds says Welcome to My Nightmare. Leading the current crop of "confessional" poets, Olds socks us with experience we didn't ask to share: Mother, internal organs, personal ghosts. But share them we do.

Robert Pinsky, by contrast, may be today's most "public" poet; he's in his second term as Poet Laureate of the United States. "Jersey Rain"(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 80 pages, $21) lets book-learned experience -- classical mythology, for example -- mingle with his personal past in the old neighborhood of firehouses, butchers, Hasids and jazz men.

Beware of the windfall you dream, Pinsky's "The Green Piano" warns anyone Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. He addresses thus the grand piano his mother won for the family's cramped flat:

Aolian, Gratis, Great thunderer, half-ton infant of miracles

torn free of charge from the universe by my mother's will ...

Cutting and pasting personal history the way our dreams do, Pinsky asks,

"What is Imagination

But your lost child born to give birth to you?"

Our own life stories began as other people's dreams.

Poems and dreams, like history, include items we know only by stories and pictures -- things that didn't happen to us. But the dreams themselves do happen to us -- they're actual events in our lives. Hence the jarring realism of the flowered wallpaper in Grandma's old house that we know only from a few dim photographs.

Poets Adrienne Rich and Sapphire welcome us to nightmares that include both snapshots and history. These two poets, years apart in age and fame, come from that ghetto where we tend to herd writers according to race, creed and pursuit of happiness. Jewish and African-American respectively, feminists and lesbians both, they live in haunted quarters.

Here's political/social activist Rich rejecting a Romanticized history for the real nightmare, demanding that we:

... look through history's bloodshot eyes


not O my Captain fallen cold & dead by the assassin's hand

but cold alive & cringing: drinking with the assassins

in suit of Hong Kong silk ...

with the traffickers

in nerve gas ...

-- From the title poem of "Midnight Salvage: Poems 1995-1998," (W. W. Norton, 96 pages, $11.)

Sapphire, in "My Father's Silence" (for example), shows us a 1950 snapshot from the Korean war. A remnant from her abusive father's history (but also a remnant of our own), it teaches her how to forgive him for monstrous abuse. The picture sets her:

dreaming blood bath wire,

the torn integument of the soul

mute in Alabama, Peoria, patient in Mississippi,

... the dead

years stacked up like Melmac plates

wrapped in plastic & Styrofoam

even though they can't,

like him,


-- From "Black Wings & Blind Angels" (Knopf, 129 pages, $20).

It's only when she tries to reproduce too literally the way dreams come without words that the dream doesn't get to us. "Under Water," a four-and-a-half page poem in which a third of the lines are rows of x's. It's packaging too chancy to deliver.

Tidier parcels of past are sent out by Paul Lake's "Walking Backward" (Story Line Press, 80 pages, $12.95). Lake is a leading "New Formalist" whose early collection "Bull Dancing" my own press brought out in 1977. Schooled in the monologues of Roberts Frost and Browning, Lake uses iambic lines to deliver pasts he lived (as in "Two Hitchhikers," set in Harford County) and he's read, such as "Interrogations":

What droll imaginations men had

To carve stocks out of iron and wood

In the shape of an instrument and

Then call it a neck violin ...

Like ours, Lake's nightmares recur -- the ritual bull from his first book's title poem morphs into one of the torture instruments.

Lake has observed that "Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Stevens were in many ways traditionalists." By opting for their tradition, he takes no chances on letting the writer's experience fall apart before it reaches the reader.

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