The Importance of Being Wrong — Part 1

Poetry’s main chance, it seems to me, the best of its possible futures, lies in not being buffaloed.

John Barr with arms crossed

You have just returned from a workshop in which your poems, the manuscript of a first book, were the subject of discussion. It was a summit meeting of eyeglasses, cleared throats, and nodded assents. One of your associates called the work “a visit to the secret corners of the lesser earth,” and congratulated you on “your ability to import unhappiness from the farthest quarters.” Another, however, noted “a predominance of pedantry.” Yet another dismissed it as “a lot of tranquil gossip.” Your advisor, however, was enthusiastic. The poems put him in mind of “the latest trends in barbiturates.” Taken as a whole “they perfect the poem as an artistic fly-by.” He commended you on the logical order of your manuscript, which was put together “in a way that hog callers can understand.” Back home, you must now consider what to do with this advice and who, after all, is to be the authority on what you write.

Poetry’s main chance, it seems to me, the best of its possible futures, lies in not being buffaloed. There are so many who would tell us what to do, who would keep us on the short leash of their disapproval. The problem, to borrow a line on Aristotle, is to get the better of the misologists and eristics. There is a part of us that will not be owned. It is that part which the poet must recognize, accommodate, nurture.

Poetry needs to be incorrect. It needs to use the wrong fork. It needs to live in harm’s way. (Poems are not harmless.) It accosts us on the streets. It offers to wash our windshields. It has criminal instincts and should be ranked with shoplifting and other petty crime. Are poets crazy? At least they are in touch with craziness. I think of the figure of the poet as a man or woman in a dump, holding a broken lamp — a white porcelain fracture of the made. I think of poets as standing in a rest room staring into the opposing mirrors; their business is this parliament of images. Imagination, starting where understanding stops, goes where understanding has not been and cannot go.

John with his granddaughter

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Copy of How Should a Poem End?

John Barr sitting at his desk in his studio

A narrative poem, whether an epic as long as the Odyssey or an ancient ballad like Sir Patrick Spens, has a tale to tell. And when the tale is told, it stops. The progress of a lyric poem is quite different. Robert Frost describes it memorably in “The Figure a Poem Makes.”

Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. A poem may be worked on once it is in being, but may not be worried into being. Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it. Read it a hundred times: It will forever keep its freshness as a metal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.

And he says of such a poem:

It has denoument. It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the first mood. It is but a trick poem and no poem at all if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last. It finds its own name as it goes and discovers the best waiting for it in some final phrase. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.

It is of that surprise I want to speak, and how that surprise can engage its reader in a partnership. In “Meeting the British” Paul Muldoon (himself a great admirer of Frost) describes a meeting between a Native American and British soldiers who have come to suppress tribal uprisings during Pontiac’s War (1763).

Meeting the British

We met the British in the dead of winter.
The sky was lavender

and the snow lavender-blue.
I could hear, far below,

the sound of two streams coming together
(both were frozen over)

and, no less strange,
myself calling out in French

across that forest-
clearing. Neither General Jeffrey Amherst

nor Colonel Henry Bouquet
could stomach our willow-tobacco.

As for the unusual
scent when the Colonel shook out his hand-

kerchief: C’est la lavande,
une fleur mauve comme le ciel.

They gave us six fishhooks
and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.

See how the poem keeps on going after the surprise in that last line? The poem is finished but the reader’s mind must continue beyond that line to realize the British intent and to watch a dark world open. The reader has become a participant — a partner — in the work of the poem. And it is that personal engagement, when the reader is no longer reading but enters the poem as a participant, that will stick in the reader’s mind, perhaps forever.

I call this a Wiley Coyote ending. Wiley races after the Roadrunner to the edge of the cliff — and keeps on going. After running several steps on thin air he halts, looks at us, looks down, and plummets. The last line of a lyric poem should carry us beyond the poem’s end to plummet into thin air.

John smiling and holding his dogs

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