V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




        I know I’m supposed to say “Read!” when students
at Q and A sessions ask me what advice I’d give
                aspiring writers and “Read poetry!” when they ask me what
        advice I’d give aspiring poets, but then
I always think of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-
                1678), who said, Why, if he had read as much as other men,
        he should be as ignorant as they are, meaning
you can’t just go on slavishly aping the bad ideas

        of your predecessors and thinking them good ideas
just because your predecessors are older than you,
                which is, no doubt, why so much “experimental
         poetry” of today consists of experiments conducted
60 or 70 years ago, according to poet and friend
                Thomas Lux, not to mention why so much “experimental
        poetry” results, according to equally great poet and friend
Tony Hoagland, in “failed experiments,” though even

        as I say these things to the young Mormons
at Brigham Young University-Idaho who are at this moment
                supplying the Qs for all the As I am to give them,
        I fear they’ll think I am saying your brain
should be empty or you don’t have to be too smart
                to write poetry or something equally misleading,
        whereas what I mean to say is just the opposite:
that your brain should be as full of ideas as “an egg is full

        of meat,”as Mercutio says to Benvolio, and that
these ideas can come from anywhere, and to illustrate
                my point, I tell the young Mormons or mormoncini,
        as they are called in Italy, that I am now reading
Russell Sullivan’s biography of Rocky Marciano
                because I’d read in the New York Times that when
        ex-champ Joe Louis retired he was deeply in debt
and so returned to the ring, first losing to Ezzard Charles

        and then beating a bunch of tomato cans like Cesar Brion,
Omelio Agramonte, Andy Walker, Lee Savold,
                Jimmy Bivins, Freddie Beshore—what a comedown
        for the man who was once the Brown Bomber, Dusky Downer,
Sepia Slugger, Chocolate Chopper, Dark Destroyer,
                that is, not overweight British champ Don
        Cockell who reminded one sportswriter of the Fat Boy in Dickens’
Pickwick Papers and was known as Dumpling Don, Fatso,

        the Glandular Globe, the Battersea Butterball, the Waist of Time,
but Joe Louis, damn it, successful defender of his title
                25 times and champ for 11 years, longer than anyone
        before or since, and now he’s climbing into the ring
with the Rock, where the two pugilists feel each other out for most
                of the first round and then start mixing
        it up, though by the sixth round, Louis is clearly
out of gas, and in the eighth, Rocky hits him with an overhand right

        that sends Louis through the ropes and onto the ring
apron. The photo of the final punch is sickening:
                Louis looks like a drunk under a streetlight, his arms
        hanging limply by his side, as the Rock leans in
and smashes him on the mouth. In most ring photos
                of Rocky landing a kayo punch, he’s lunging, wild-eyed
        and open-mouthed, left foot forward, right arm
almost tearing free of its socket, like that of a pitcher throwing

        a fast ball. But here Rocky is standing straight, features
composed, gaze intent, like a man driving a nail into
                a wall so he can hang a picture. In his dressing room,
        Rocky cried because of what he had done, and he never shook
the feeling of remorse, and that’s why I’m reading
                this book: because Rocky Marciano cried after beating
        the champ whose bouts he’d listened to on the radio
when he was a kid, and I know his tears mean something,

        but I’m not sure what. I fly home the next day, and when
we start to deplane after the flight from Idaho
                to Salt Lake City, the guy in front of me is shouting
        into his Bluetooth, “Take the offer off the table!
Take it off!” and wrestling with his oversized bag,
                so I quietly edge around him, and he turns to me
        and shouts, “You are so rude!” and I point to the Bluetooth
in his ear and say, “Are you talking to me or to that thing?”

        and he just keeps shouting, “You are a rude person!
You are so rude!” so I figure he’s talking to me
                and think of the time I’m at my son’s soccer practice
        and another dad is watching Ian kick a ball around
and asks,“Is Ian bright?” and I answer, “I think so, yeah,”
                and he says, “Good, then he won’t have to be tough,”
        and I think, Are those the only choices? Either you figure
out how to convince people to do what’s right for both

        them and you or else you clobber them, just kick them
in the nuts and deck them as they stagger and wheeze,
                and you kneel on their chest and pound their face raw
        as you say “Do it, do it, you son of a bitch, because
it’s the right thing, also if you don’t do it, I’ll kill you,”
                and it could be the right thing, whatever it is,
        but the guy on the ground won’t know that,
he’ll think he’s doing it because you beat him half

        to death, not because it’s right. The day before,
a young man named Thorsen came up after the Q and A
                and said that his grandfather had been Joe Louis’s
        sparring partner back in the day and that he wasn’t any good
(“big clumsy Norwegian,” as Thorsen says) but that later
                he’d been part of the Bataan Death March during
        which thousands of POWs were beheaded or disembowled
or beaten to death by the Japanese while he survived

        because all he thought about the whole time was being
in the ring with Joe Louis and what he had to do
                to stay alive there, which was to come across
        as a human, that is, not a victim, not someone
you could easily hurt or kill because he’s powerless
                and therefore disgusting to you but someone in whom
        you see yourself, see your own worth, your strength
and, if that, then your weakness as well, the frailty

        that comes upon us all, and your nobility and baseness,
your infinite faculties and your limits, too, how express
                and admirable in form and moving,
        as Shakespeare says, like an angel in action, in apprehension
like a god, the beauty of the world, the paragon
                of animals, though, unlike them,
        able to laugh, to weep because you never want to hurt
anyone who is as you are, and that’s everyone.


© by David Kirby


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