A couple of weeks ago I attended the Single Voice Reading event which, contrary to the title, featured two discrete voices at the podium: Brian Barker and Nicki Beer.
The readings were engaging; the poets, articulate and well-paced; the lighting in the Tillotson Room of the Tippie Alumni Center, golden; and, as is usual with my layperson’s education of poetry, I left tempted to simply shrug and scratch my belly button and concede: I don’t get it.
That is not to say the poems themselves were totally inaccessible. On the contrary, Beer’s lines from her book “The Octopus Game” were some of the most understandable and open metaphorical setups that I have encountered. The opening verses in the duel-voiced “Ad Hominem” show a witty call-and-response play on what it means to be a poet.
“Fugitive lung, prodigal intestine—/where’s the pink crimp in my side/where they took you out?” reads the poet’s voice.
The octopus responds, “It must be a dull world, indeed/where everything appears/to be a version or extrapolation/of you.”
So superficially, at least, the book seems to make the statement: of the two (octopus and humans), we hominids are the stranger. Or rather, strangeness is in the eye of the beholder. I am sure that this does not nearly capture the essence of what Beer believes, and I am sure serious poetry readers will smack their foreheads in pity at my near-illiterate attempt at aphoristic analysis.
So let me ask the question: if Beer’s meaning or reasoning or intention or whatever you want to call it could be condensed and reduced to an accessible maxim, why didn’t she become an essayist? Why not a novelist? Whence poetry, anyway?
Let me put it another way: the question that I had after leaving the Tippie Alumni Center post-Single Voice Reading that I later articulated to my English teachers was, am I supposed to get it?
I assume that no artist enters a medium without the knowledge and influence of a good deal of artists who preceded them. Before Cobain came The Pixies. Before Adler, there was Stanislavsky. Before Hemingway, Melville.
So who preceded Beer? What poets—of this century or the myriad before—did she leaf through and opine, I should do this?
As an academic layperson, my only education regarding verse and line has been an annual inoculation with the Romantics, a one-time booster of the Naturalists and a quick patch-test of Modernism. Coleridge, Wordsworth and Keats are thick but not wholly unapproachable; Frost and Whitman are pretty digestible; and Ezra Pound makes it hard for me to like Ezra Pound.
But that still leaves a good hundred-year-long gap between the last accessible poets that I am familiar with and Beer. Barring obvious choices like Plath, Angelou and Neruda, I assume that my exposure to poetry is fairly similar to that of most of the students who were with me in that room.
So here is my first question: if, like a good academic, I had an encyclopedic knowledge of everything that preceded Beer and all of her putative influences, would I understand any further why she chose to spend a fraction of her adult life writing about cephalopods?
The first poems that rose up from the cradle of human civilization did not distinguish between the layperson and the scholar. Homeric hymns and Sumerian myths were meant to be accessed by the public. Epochs of variation on the same themes—structured lines and rhythms—established, expanded, broke and reaffirmed countless rules by which poetry has been governed.
And now, in full Baudrillardian fashion, the (contemporary Western) idea of poetry seems to have come to represent the exploration of a series of rules that have nothing to do with the original purpose of spoken words.
But all this is pedantic. Yes, if I lived five thousand years ago, I could reasonably expect to be entertained by an equivalent to the Single Voice Reading. But this is 2015. Yeats’ work pops up in more references than Virgil’s.
Like her more immediate predecessors, Beer did not pen her lines without the implicit intention of making me work to understand them. And even after working with her lines for weeks, I still doubt that I will ever completely grasp what it is she was trying to say.
So here is question number two: Is the point specifically that I’m not supposed to get it?
The first time anyone reads a poem on their own volition, odds are that it has something to do with name recognition. You are not interested in “The Conquerer Worm” because you think worms are cool—you want to know why Edgar Allen quote-him-in-your-sixth-grade-binder Poe thought worms were word-worthy. You pop open Lovecraft’s early poetry because you want to know what he has to say that he could not in one of his stories. I assume that the same holds true even for academics in instances of, say, Borges.
I knew nothing about Yeats when I was required to read “The Second Coming,” and nothing of Frost when I was forced into the winter night of “Stopping in the Woods….” So I was free to imagine the former as ironically sarcastic when he penned “Surely some Revelation is at hand,” and I hesitantly assumed that the latter’s narrator was writing about contemplating suicide.
I can intuit that those interpretations are wildly off. And I do not doubt that my aforementioned reading of Beer’s “Ad Hominem” is any closer to the truth that she wrote into those verses. And I suspect Beer knows this—but I also suspect she did not write “The Octopus Game” for the sake of entertaining her audience.
So maybe that is what poetry today is all about: the fact that nothing ever communicated ever truly gets captured by the listener/reader in a way completely, authentically, 100 percent congruent to the meaning of the speaker/writer. Maybe poetry has become less about self-expression and more about the loneliness when facing the noise of all those who came before you.