Saturday, December 5, 2009

"I am a sensitive man" and "What are Poets for"

  In March 2000, I started reading Al Purdy’s Room for Rent in the Outer Planets. When I finished the first reading, he died. Of course, I did not learn that he was dying when I was reading. Reading starts with rereading, this I believe without doubt, especially in terms of poetry. A few months later, I finished his selected poems, together with two thin critical essays concerning him. As usual, I would put him aside for some time, giving myself a period to ruminate and reflect, till one day when I am brought back to him, say, by reading of anyone who happens to write or talk about him somewhere in my virtual eyeshot or earshot. By the end of 2000, I learned of his death, and the next year I read his Collected Poems.
  Purdy had a poem, quite popular among his readers, At the Quinte Hotel, which was made into a video, with himself featuring the voice: “I am drinking/ I am drinking beer yellow flowers/ in underground sunlight/ and you can see I am a sensitive man.” Yes, a man sees what defines himself.
  Legend says that the Chinese poet Su Shih (Su Tung-po 1037-1101) once met Zen Master Fo-yin. They talked, and then Su asked Foyin what he was in Foyin’s eyes. Foyin replied “a flower,” while Su retorted that “but I saw you as a pile of shit in this gold kasaya (Buddhist cassock). Upon returning, he told his younger sister Su Xiaomei (fictional younger sister Su) what he and Zen Master had conversed. That gave his sister a good laugh. She told Su that in Buddhism, what one sees in things is the reflection of the beholder (The object mirrors the subject). Su was very ashamed.
  Purdy said “I am a sensitive man” and told the bartender, but the bartender was “not quite/ so sensitive as I supposed he was.” Eventually, in the chaotic but lovely bar, Purdy was challenged with a fight, but he tried to dodge, saying “Violence will get nowhere this time… I am a sensitive man/ and would you believe I write poems?” This interested beer-drinkers (not as dramatic as strip-teaser “I” to the peanut-crunching crowd in Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”). Anyway, I was egged on to “tell a poem,” so I read this poem. “They crowed around me with tears/ in their eyes …/ It was heart-warming moment for Literature” and then “I remarked/ ‘—the poem oughta be worth some beer.” Silence froze the tavern. “poems will not really buy beer…/ and I was sad/ for I am a sensitive man.”
  Yeats was a sensitive man, and wrote in “When You Are Old” that “but one man loved the pilgrim soul in you” when he could not get the present woman at the present time. He chose to write about this woman being deserted in her senility and murmuring how love fled. He was overpowered by the refusal, and did not venture to pursue any longer. He turned to love and appreciate his own love instead. What he saw in that woman became what defined him, and that became his poetry (the poeticness out of unsatisfaction). The quality that never changed over time in her was not her soul, for that soul did not appease him; it was the thing that he found as a byproduct that had lasting power.
  He who loves finds a special charm in another and becomes the charmer through his finding too. He who loves is hurt not because he cannot get what he loves but because his finding is never been appreciated. When whoever he loves is hijacked by another, he is hurt the deepest for the hijacker wastes what he values most. What else could Yeats do but write all his life over what he loved deepest, trying hard to abstract(ize) and mythologize the concrete one?
  He had a chance to visit her, in a distant city. Before he actually made the trip, he had some much to brood over. He is a sensitive man. He had started all his premeditations. He would be go with her side by side through the avenues and backstreets and alleys of that ancient city, but how close would they keep their distance so that he can still feel the intimacy? He would sit with her face to face in a café or a teahouse or a small inn for some local odd dishes and delicacies, but how often could he raise his eyes to gaze her eyebrows and forehead? Most of all, what if he feels the static head between what he expected from her and what he perceives from her about their affection? He was phobic of being replied and refused with friendly face-giving appropriate politeness, and he was afraid of being misunderstood by socially conventional wisdom, i.e. a man goes to his old flame for nothing but illusionary “dangerous complement” (not Rousseau’s but Derrida’s). Now, he is a sensitive man, and he chose not to embark on that trip.
  Auden wrote in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”:
       You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
       The parish of rich women, physical decay,
       Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
       Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
       For poetry makes nothing happen…
  Auden saw Yeats’ futile political endeavors not in those efforts themselves but in Yeats’ belief that he could really make things happen (just like his love poems for a woman). Maybe Auden thought it better not to believe that he could do anything. If one was hurt into poetry, then the poet would be hurt more, for poetry could not provide any external salvation. If a poet demands solace which is external to poetry itself, then poetry may be no shelter for the poet. But,… after all, Auden wrote an elegy for Yeats.
  What are poets for in a destitute time? Or what is poetry for in the affluent society in a destitute time? Poetry-writing is not persuasive expository. It is not necessarily performative. A phrase like “I love you” may imply an action, and it is actually a verb, transitive, demanding or entailing an object. If the object can be an objectified into something like an objet d’art, then the object following the verb “love” becomes an absent presence. It is then the mirror that reflects the viewer, and the viewer sees the reflection and forgets the materiality of the mirror. The mirror is the precondition by which the viewer’s self is presented as an image. The poet writes down a word such as “you” in “I love you,” and he proceeds to love this word. The word “you” has its own life and can absorb all the emotions from the poet. A poet is an ouroboros.
  A poem is written, not for performative reasons, but for exhibitive values. It is a silent call, by which whoever hears it recognize the quality in her- himself and realizes that s/he shares with a secret fraternity. That mute sound resounds only to those whose invisible heartstrings are struck by the faith that there are sensitive men and women who use such a secret code to convey their call. That call does not make things surface; the things may happen invisibly. The moment Purdy claims for a beer out of the poem, the poem’s value falls zero and dead.
  A poem is a monologue of a sensitive man; oh, he may soliloquize before a mirror, but never face an audience, not the least on a stage. Silly, like us. Anne Sexton said she was “a possessed witch” and had been her kind. This is better than Plath's blunt question “are you our sort of a person?” There should be and really is “a special language” that secretly brands them as intimates, so that they can appreciate whatever “tools” the others use but “never ask why.”
                       Dec. 04, 2009


George Fitzgerald said...

What a lovely essay!

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