David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: “Daddy, what did YOU do in the great ‘Poetry Is Dead’ war?”

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Read poetry, what else? That’s the greatest military maneuver in the ‘Poetry Is Dead’ war, isn’t it? It’s where the odds are longest, the risk greatest, kind of like Lee at Chancellorsville.

It’s where you can ward off the absurdities, the silliness, the dismissiveness, the walk-backage, as well as the battles that took place on a three-thousand mile front of American Poetry Outrage. The headline “‘Poetry Is Not Dead,’ says Poetry” kind of summed it up. Good work, team!

So yesterday, I got into the thick of it . . simply by reading and listening to a poem I adore, W. S. Di Piero’s “It’s That Time,” originally published in Poetry in April 2011. Here is the poem:

The silence of night hours
is never really silent.
You hear the air,
even when it doesn’t stir.
It’s a memory of the day.
Nothing stirs. Memory lags.
No traffic hushing up
and down tricky hills
among the camphor trees.

No foghorns, no streetcars’
shrilling phantoms before
they emerge from tunnels.
These absences keep us alert.
No rain or street voices,
nobody calling to someone else,
Hannah, you walk the dog
tonight yet or what?

Only certain things to hear:
The sexy shifting of trees,
the refrigerator buzzing
while Cherubino sings
the best of love is enthusiasm’s
intense abandon, a voice
in song that preys on no one
and is unconscious of its joy.

I read the poem. And I listened to Di Piero’s recording of it. It gave me great pleasure. A victory against the death of poetry.

But I didn’t remember exactly who Cherubino was. I’ll be honest. I love opera! I mean, I want to love opera. I adore it completely. But I don’t know the first thing about it. Looking it up, I remembered … right, Marriage of Figaro. Then I found this clip of the enchanting Frederica von Stade as Cherubino singing Non so più cosa son.

And then … and then, I fully engaged the Poetry Is Dead war. I played the aria softly in the background while also simultaneously listening to the South Philly voice of Di Piero reading the poem. And it all came together. The full experience. The quiet night, the over voice of the poet — “Hannah, you walk the dog / tonight yet or what?” — and the lithe Frederica von Stade as Cherubino as the poem’s soundtrack for “intense abandon,” for desire, for the peculiar longings of solitude.

I highly recommend this sort of experience. And I wish poets and poetry publishers would offer more of it — including notes to poems, soundtrack for poems that invoke music, graphic poetry, poetry and film. I know this sort of thing is out there and amazing, so let’s get beyond the 8.5 x 11 experience for a change.

Because that’s the rub: We are outraged by a public, ill-formed, and ill-informed dismissal of poetry. But it’s the singular quiet instances of being in poetry — and less so the sturm und drang — that keep it alive. I mean, of experiencing poetry. In the heart. In the soul. In the mind. In the body. One poem. One reader. Conscious of joy, sure. But also comfortable with the “unconscious” feeling for that deeper undercurrent of singularity and of humanity that comes when a poem rises beyond the proficient. Because when we are able to steer our lives into the direction of listening, of reading, of experiencing the art of intimate language engaged with the self and history, then poetry has nothing to fear.

Poetry, my dear Ms. Petri, is immortal. It thrives even when it appears not to stir.

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Poetry Wire congratulates Robert Polito and John Barr: Congratulations are in order to Robert Polito, the next president of the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. And, Poetry Wire wishes to thank John Barr, the foundation’s first president, for his years of leadership, vision, and management of the foundation. Ten years ago, poetry was not regularly featured on television, high school students were not engaged in national poetry declamation contests, the English-speaking world’s largest anthology on the web did not exist, and American poetry did not have a think tank dedicated to figuring out how to keep the non-remunerative art of poetry thriving in a consumerist American world and closer to the center of American culture.

Poetry Wire notes the passing Lucien Stryk and Anselm Hollo: Stryk (1924-2013) was a fixture of Illinois poetry for nearly fifty years. His poems resist the violence of war, while his translations of Chinese and Japanese Zen poetry extol the tenderness of daily life. Anselm Hollo (1934-2013) emigrated to the United States in the late 1960s. Since the mid-1980s he had taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. His poetry is marked by directness of thought and speech, and a searing disregard for flagrancy and pretension.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry: Charming Gardeners, The Book of Men and Women, Wild Civility, Pilgrims & Beggars, and Shattering Air. More from this author →