At a Reading of Poems of a Poet's Agonies
X. J. Kennedy
We sit and listen, writhing in our chairs,
Pierced by a pain far worse than what he shares.
First published in TRINACRIA #5 (Spring 2011)
Pain, Product, and Poetry
by Joseph S. Salemi
I went to my first opera when I was six years old. My mother took me to the
world premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Saint of Bleecker Street, on
the condition that I be a good boy and behave. It was some time in December of
1954, and my aunt (the soprano Elizabeth Carron) was singing. I was much more
interested in seeing my Aunt Lee—that’s what we called her—on stage than
anything else. My mother hoped that the evening would be the start of some
musical interest in me. Alas, that never happened. Despite sitting through
dozens of operas over the next decade, my enthusiasms were doggedly literary and
Opening night at the opera always brought out celebrities back then. My
mother pointed out to me the film actor Franchot Tone, and the singer William
Warfield. She also said "See that man on crutches? That’s the famous Cole
Porter." I remember a cadaverous figure whose face was a mask of pain, with eyes
blackened by his suffering, hobbling along slowly on spindly wooden crutches. I
didn’t understand how he could possibly be interested in hearing an opera.
Following the performance we went back stage to see Aunt Lee. I was bursting
with childish enthusiasm after sitting for three hours, but my mom warned me to
be silent. She said to me "Do you see that thin woman over there?" I looked and
saw a striking lady in brown taffeta. My mother intoned "That’s the great
Marlene Dietrich. Don’t you dare make noise!" I was suitably cowed.
Marlene, however, did make some noise. It happened to be a mild December in
New York that year, and I recall Miss Dietrich saying, in her low husky voice,
"It’s like spring outside! Spring!" In any case, I liked my mother’s evening
dress of black taffeta with tiny rosebuds much better than Dietrich’s ensemble.
But most of all I remember Cole Porter, and that terrible burden of pain
etched into his visage. He had been in a horrendous riding accident in 1937, and
the doctors had advised a double amputation of his hopelessly smashed legs. He
refused, and instead endured over thirty futile operations over the following
fifteen years, with most of that time spent in chronic agony.
Nevertheless, in the twenty years between the accident and his final
retirement, Porter produced some of his most memorable work, such as the
immortal songs from DuBarry Was A Lady, Mexican Hayride,
Kiss Me Kate, and Can-Can. How strange to think of all those
lighthearted and breezily perfect lyrics coming from the pen of a man whose
limbs were racked with pain.
Is suffering a prerequisite for the making of great art? No, of course not.
There are many perfectly content persons who have produced masterworks of
creativity. What suffering might well do, however, is add urgency to one’s
labors. Because suffering is merely the anteroom to death, its presence focuses
our awareness on the third of what the Church calls the Four Last Things:
Heaven, Hell, Death, and Final Judgment. Suffering cuts through the silly hubris
of imagining that one has unlimited time.
Suffering can’t make you an artist. Your artistic skill comes from
study, training, development, practice, and innate gifts. If it were otherwise,
we could simply torture budding poets and musicians until they did good work.
But no one can escape trouble and tribulation totally, and the best of us use it
as a spur to our labors.
I recall the retirement several years ago of one of the heads of our state
poetry societies (you know them—the organizations run by what Dana Gioia calls
"the trinominate blue-haired ladies"). At her somewhat syrupy retirement speech,
the lady said that poetry had only three valid subjects: love, suffering, and
Can you imagine the utter limitation of such an aesthetic? A poetry with no
comedy, no satire, no argument, no rodomontade, no wit, no intellectuality, no
myth, no politics? But that is what happens to poetry when you think that only
intense emotion is allowable in it. It becomes walled in, like Fortunato, behind
the bricks of three boring commonplaces. Love, suffering, and death the only
subjects? Great—let’s all talk about our most recent amour, our arthritic limbs,
and how we are dreading the grave. That kind of constricting stupidity is what
makes a lot of contemporary poetry unreadable drivel.
What lies behind this nonsense is the unspoken Puritan assumption that a poem
ought to be a reflection of what you are actually feeling and experiencing, and
if it isn’t the poem is somehow "dishonest" or "inauthentic" or—to use one of
the most idiotic terms in contemporary literary criticism—"unearned." Yes, there
are some dorks in English departments who call the effects of some poems
"unearned," as if they were discussing income from bonds. If there is no genuine
feeling behind a poem, they say, then any literary effect it may have on readers
is illegal or at least unfair.
Imagine if Cole Porter wrote about his "feelings" during the time when he was
in great pain. Imagine if all he could commit to paper was how he "dealt with
suffering." Suppose he had turned—God help us—to one of those fatuous "self-help
and self-awareness" texts that pollute the shelves of our bookstores. Suppose he
could only bloviate pompously on the serious aspects of love, suffering, and
death. Would a single lyric of his be remembered?
But he didn’t do that, thank God. He didn’t focus on himself and his
perceptions, the way too many of the arrested adolescents writing poetry today
do. He knew that the important thing was not himself, nor his pain, nor the
process by which he managed to create, but only the product that he would wrench
out of nothingness and leave behind. Poetry is product—nothing else.
This is a truth that it takes many poets years to assimilate, and the longer
it takes the more time they have wasted. No one cares about your pain. All
they care about is what you make of it, poetically.
If you read poetry because you want to hear about the trials, tribulations,
joys, sorrows, and emotional vicissitudes of a particular poet, then you are not
a serious reader of poetry. You should become a counselor or a social worker,
and listen as losers tell you their hard-luck stories. Poetry isn’t about that
at all. Poetry is about what a human mind can make out of the whole cloth of
language, plus whatever input a poet might require from his personal knowledge
or experiences. Remember Cole Porter on those crutches.
First published in The Pennsylvania Review (February 2009), and in
TRINACRIA #5 (Spring 2011)
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